Medicine: Closing in on Polio

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The expression "tissue culture" is a sleeper. It means taking pieces of human or animal tissue and keeping them alive in a nourishing solution so that new cells grow in the test tube. After trying a variety of human tissues, Dr. Enders and other investigators hit upon the kidney of the rhesus monkey as a readily available material in which viruses could be mass-produced. At last researchers had a safe starting material for a vaccine. Moreover, tissue cultures could be used to find out something at which immunologists pre1viously could only guess: how high a level of antibodies a person must have to enjoy immunity against polio.

The Knowns & Unknowns. This was where Dr. Salk came in. Born in Manhattan in 1914. eldest of three sons-of a women's-wear manufacturer. Jonas Salk was a precocious youngster with unusually neat and tidy habits and eaually precise ways of classifying ideas. He graduated from Townsend Harris High School (for "accelerated" students) at 16 and from the College of the City of New York at 19. After his freshman year at New York University Medical School. Jonas Salk was already so interested in research that he took a year out to work on protein chemistry. Asked today why he devotes his life to research. Salk counters: "Why did Mozart compose music?"

The research bug was in his blood, and to stay. After a Manhattan internship, the eager Dr. Salk did not even consider going into routine practice. Instead, he won a National Research Council fellowship for work on viruses. One of his favorite N.Y.U. professors. Dr. Thomas Francis Jr., had gone to Ann Arbor, and there Salk joined him. He was there in 1947 when Dr. William Swindler McEllroy, the University of Pittsburgh's dean of medicine, was looking for a bright young man to start a virus laboratory. Dr. McEllroy had always wanted to do virus research himself, and this, he figured, was the time to get cracking, since the antibiotics were beating the daylights out of most of the bacterial infections. In Salk he saw both a promising virologist and a man to fulfill his own dreams.

With his wife, the former Donna Lindsay of Manhattan, and two young sons (there is a third now), Dr. Salk went to Pittsburgh on faith. There was no virus laboratory and only enough personnel for a skeleton staff. But Dr. McEllroy got him space in the basement of the misnamed Municipal Hospital, little used because it is limited to a few infectious diseases and is half-empty after the polio season. (Epidemiologist Hammon now occupies fourth-floor quarters in the same building.)

A quick and logical thinker and a quick, incisive speaker. Dr. Salk plunged into his work with boundless energy. At the beginning he stuck to his first love, the influenza viruses. But soon he decided to "look into this polio problem to see what it was about." The time was exactly ripe for a man with a passion for plotting knowns and unknowns in schematic dia gram and an ability to stick to it day and night.

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