One good way to assess the great figures of medicine is by how completely they make us forget what we owe them. By that measure, Dr. Jonas E. Salk ranks very high. Partly because of the vaccine he introduced in the mid-1950s, it's hard now to recall the sheer terror that was once connected to the word polio. The incidence of the disease had risen sharply in the early part of this century, and every year brought the threat of another outbreak. Parents were haunted by the stories of children stricken suddenly by the telltale cramps and fever. Public swimming pools were deserted for fear of contagion. And year after year polio delivered thousands of people into hospitals and wheelchairs, or into the nightmarish canisters called iron lungs. Or into the grave. In the worst year of epidemic, 1952, when nearly 58,000 cases were reported in the U.S., more than 3,000 people died.
All of that is hard to remember, because by the time of Salk's death last week, of heart failure at the age of 80, polio was virtually gone from the U.S. and nearing extinction throughout the world. The beginning of the end for the virus can be dated precisely. On April 12, 1955, a Salk colleague announced that a vaccine developed by Salk and tested on more than 1 million schoolchildren had proved "safe, effective and potent." As a result of the nationwide effort of mass inoculation that followed, new cases in the U.S. dropped to fewer than 1,000 by 1962.
That triumph made Salk one of the most celebrated men of the 1950s. Streets and schools were named for him; in polls he ranked with Gandhi and Churchill as a hero of modern history. Though his fame was expertly fostered by the public-relations machinery of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and its March of Dimes campaign, which helped finance Salk's work, national adulation was still an unexpected fate for a dedicated scientist in an unglamorous field.
The son of a New York City garmentworker, Salk was introduced to viral research as a medical student at New York University in the 1930s. After receiving his degree he moved to the University of Michigan to work with Dr. Thomas Francis Jr., one of his former professors. There he helped to develop commercial vaccines against influenza that were used by American troops during World War II.
After the war Salk headed the viral-research program at the University of Pittsburgh, where he gradually devoted his studies to polio. When he began his work, medical wisdom held that vaccines, to be effective, should use live viruses that had been rendered harmless in the laboratory. Salk believed it would be possible to make a vaccine using killed viruses; this method, he thought, was preferable since it carried less risk of actually causing the disease the vaccine was meant to prevent. When animal tests on an experimental vaccine proved successful, he moved on to human tests in which he and his family were among the first subjects to be injected.