Jonas Salk (1914-1995)

Credit: Photo courtesy of the Salk Institute

Jonas Salk was an American doctor who developed the first effective vaccine against polio. Having worked on a flu vaccine in the 1940s, Salk switched his attention to polio, which had become a much feared epidemic disease in post-war America. He successfully produced a vaccine in 1952 and this was introduced into general use in 1955. His vaccine was eventually superseded by one developed by Albert Sabin, a course of action that was accompanied by intense rivalry and much ill feeling between the two scientists and their supporters.

Salk’s vaccine incorporated dead polio virus particles which were capable of provoking an immune response without infecting the patient. So confident was he of its effectiveness that he, his wife and children and his laboratory staff were among the first to test the vaccine in 1952. Two years later national testing began, when nearly 2 million children across America were vaccinated. All were given a lollipop and a ‘Polio Pioneer’ badge for their trouble, but half of the children had unknowingly received a placebo - one of the first examples of so-called double-blind testing, which is now standard practice.

The numbers of polio cases dropped dramatically following the introduction of mass vaccination programmes. Alongside Sabin’s vaccine, Salk’s vaccine rapidly reduced the threat of polio across much of the world. In 1963 Salk established the Salk Institute of Biological Studies in California, which continues to research a range of diseases and their possible treatments. In the years leading up to his death, Salk had been searching for an effective vaccine for AIDS.