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Source: Academy of Achievement

Jonas Salk: A Selfless Scientist

Asrar Chowdhury

The beauty of science not only lies in the quest that seeks to unravel the unknown into the domain of the known and make magicians and wizards look no more human than ourselves, but also that science has always been gifted by unseen and unsung heroes who have dedicated their lives to this quest for the betterment of mankind. One such hero was Jonas Salk (October 28, 1914 to Jun 23, 1995), the American medical researcher and virologist who developed the world's first safe and effective polio (poliomyelitis) vaccine.

Until the mid 1950s, people throughout the world had frightening thoughts at the possibility of a polio attack. Polio is a disease that can paralyse arms and legs, and even the chest. It used to be called infantile paralysis, because it attacked children, many of whom could not walk for the rest of their lives without crutches or leg braces. Today we take polio for granted because the relentless dedication of Jonas Salk and also Albert Sabin has revealed to mankind that the virus is not the magician- mankind is.

Jonas Salk was born in New York. His parents were Russian migrants who had no formal education, but were determined that their children will get the best opportunities life can offer. Salk started his career studying law. After graduation, he changed his mind and decided to become a doctor. Jonas stood out from his peers not only in academic prowess, but also because he chose a road that is not normally taken in the medical profession. Salk decided to pursue medical research instead of opening an office and earn a comfortable income like his parents wished.

Salk started research on the influenza virus to see if the virus could be deprived of its ability to infect, while still giving immunity to the illness of the patient. Needless to say, he succeeded. This formed the basis for his future work on polio. In 1947, Salk joined the University of Pittsburgh Medical School where he worked with the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. After eight years of painstaking research, in April 1955, Salk declared he had developed a vaccine that could harness the killer disease polio.

Shopkeeper expressing gratitude (1955).

The Salk vaccine could not have come at a better time for America. The death of helpless children to the disease made polio the most feared threat after an atomic bomb. The fear was not endemic to America alone. The world was submitting to the perils of the killer virus affecting millions worldwide. Salk became a hero overnight enjoying celebrity status that is normally reserved for media, sports and political personalities. The world was beneath the feet of Salk in the mid 1950s. Time Magazine dedicated a cover story to this 'wizard' scientist in its March 29, 1954 issue. The 'magician' scientist had one magic spell yet to reveal that would seal the fight against polio forever.

Developing a vaccine to harness a killer disease is not unique in the history of medical science. Many before and after Salk have achieved this feat. However, once again, Salk stood out from his peers in medical history by declaring he will not patent the vaccine. Salk further declared he had no desire to profit personally from the discovery, but merely wished to see the vaccine disseminated as widely as possible in America and the world to save the lives of helpless children. In an interview to CBS Television in April 1955, when asked who owns the patent to his vaccine, Salk responded “The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the Sun”?

To the thousands of young American children in the middle of the 20th Century and the millions around the world since then, Salk was the man who gave them freedom from fear to enjoy life like anybody else. By 2012, in countries where Salk's vaccine has remained in use, polio has almost been eradicated except for some cases reported mostly in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

Jonas Salk's selfless gift of the polio vaccine for the betterment of mankind is rarely matched in human history. In his words, “I feel that the greatest reward for success is the opportunity to do more”. A week after his death on June 30, 1995 the San Diego Union printed a cartoon. It shows a young boy standing in front of Salk's tombstone. The boy wears a T-shirt that says 'Future Generations'. Behind the boy lying on the ground, are leg braces that are no longer used by the human race. The boy is speaking on behalf of the world and all the children who got an opportunity to live a normal life like anybody else, “Thank You Sir”.

On behalf of all the children of Bangladesh, for every time a child receives the free polio vaccine -- “Thank You, Jonas Salk,” the selfless scientist who rose above all.

Source: Jonas Salk: Polio Pioneer, by Corinne J. Naden & Rose Blue. Millbrook Press. 2001. Jonas Salk: Beyond the Microscope, by Victoria Sherrow. Chelsea House Publishers. 2008. Academy of Achievement: www.achievement.org.

(The author teaches economic theory at Jahangirnagar University and North South University.)

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