Nobody could recall a medical press conference quite like this one. On April 12, 1955, families huddled around radios, as if listening to the World Series or a championship fight. Crowds watched on television sets lining department store windows. Work stopped in offices and factories as word spread and tearful celebrations erupted. “Polio Is Conquered,” the headlines screamed. The vaccine developed by Jonas Salk, a 40-year-old University of Pittsburgh researcher, had been judged safe and effective following the largest public health experiment in our history.
Americans had long worshiped their athletes, inventors and war heroes — but a medical researcher? Salk was breaking new ground, whether he liked it or not. He’d become an instant celebrity, with all the baggage it entailed. A successful vaccine against polio, a viral disease that had paralyzed tens of thousands of victims, mostly children, seemed almost heaven-sent. At a White House ceremony honoring the achievement, President Dwight D. Eisenhower choked back tears as he told the young researcher: “I have no words to thank you. I am very, very happy.”
But not everyone felt this way. As Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs makes clear in her excellent biography, Salk’s public acclaim struck a sour note in much of the scientific community, where feelings of resentment and jealousy ran high against a media-created knight in a lab coat who hadn’t paid his dues. Try as he might, Salk would never fully gain the respect of his peers.
Jacobs, a professor emerita of medicine at Stanford, neatly splits “Jonas Salk” into two “acts.” The first is a vivid if by now familiar retelling of Salk’s early life, medical training, foray into polio research and fateful connection to Basil O’Connor, president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, known as the March of Dimes. Unlike other researchers, who were inching along in search of a live-virus vaccine, Salk had produced a killed-virus version with impressive results. It may not have been perfect, but it took a lot less time to develop. With polio raging each summer, a sense of urgency prevailed, giving Salk the upper hand. As O’Connor put it, “He sees beyond the microscope.”
In 1954, the March of Dimes sponsored the Salk vaccine polio trials. More than a million schoolchildren took part, some getting the real vaccine, others a look-alike placebo. Parents frantically pushed their children into line. They didn’t need to be educated about the risks and rewards of the vaccine. The evidence was everywhere: children in leg braces, wheelchairs, iron lungs — and coffins. The Salk trials rank among the great successes of modern medicine, and Jacobs tells the story as well as it’s ever been told. This is science writing at its best.
There are some curious gaps, however. Surprisingly, Jacobs doesn’t question Salk’s version of his early career as one in which anti-Semitism and political activism played no role. Though Salk angrily denied facing religious discrimination, the record shows otherwise. Among the reasons he attended New York University’s medical school in the 1930s is that it was one of the few places that didn’t have a “Jewish quota,” unlike Harvard, Yale, Columbia or Cornell. (“Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics and take no blacks at all,” was Yale’s mantra at the time.) A few years later, when applying for the fellowship that would start him on the road to the polio vaccine, Salk needed the blessing of his N.Y.U. mentor, Thomas Francis, a giant in the field of infectious disease. Realizing that the process had as much to do with religion as with talent, Francis ended his recommendation with these carefully chosen words: “Dr. Salk is a member of the Jewish race but has, I believe, a very great capacity to get on with people.”
In Salk’s early years, moreover, politics filled a deep personal void. Until serious trouble arose, Salk had defined himself through a wide range of political activities that colleagues described as “far left of center” — hardly unusual for someone coming of age in New York City during the Great Depression. The end result was an F.B.I. probe that came close to derailing his scientific career. With the Cold War in full swing, Salk put his politics aside, though the problem didn’t entirely go away. Following his triumphant White House visit in 1955, a four-page letter arrived from J. Edgar Hoover informing the president’s staff of the contents of Salk’s voluminous F.B.I. file. Fortunately, Salk’s new role as medical savior dwarfed Hoover’s paranoid concerns. The White House didn’t blink.
Amid the public accolades and professional slights, Jacobs writes, “one question always hovered: What great feat would he accomplish next?” Act 2 of the biography is a poignant and elegantly crafted look at a hero in decline. Bored with laboratory work in Pittsburgh, his killed-virus vaccine now losing ground to his rival Albert Sabin’s popular live-virus vaccine, Salk took a radically different path. Captivated by the physicist-novelist C. P. Snow’s warnings about the growing cultural divide between humanists and scientists, Salk dreamed of an institute to bridge the gap. Lavishly funded by Basil O’Connor, it took shape on a spectacular bluff overlooking the Pacific near San Diego, designed by the architect Louis Kahn to reflect Salk’s vision of “a work of art in which great minds could flourish.” The big question, of course, was: Who would come?
Salk needn’t have worried, Jacobs explains. The salaries were high, the responsibilities slim, the working conditions splendid. Before long, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies was attracting Nobel Prize winners from around the globe. Every American recruited there in the early years was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, with one exception: Salk himself. Some punishments are eternal.
In California, a new Salk emerged. He divorced his wife of almost 30 years and married Françoise Gilot, the talented French artist best known as the longtime mistress of Picasso. Salk now exercised, practiced yoga, wrote tepidly received books about science and spirituality, and took advantage of an obviously open marriage to have multiple affairs, documented by Jacobs in perhaps excessive detail.
Professionally, Salk continued to drift. His attempts at hard science, seeking insights into cancer and multiple sclerosis, excited the media (“Jonas Salk Stalks Another Killer”) but came up dry. He spent considerable time working on a killed-virus vaccine for AIDS, which looked promising for a time but ended in disappointment. What had once come so easily to him had long since disappeared. “Jonas was a common man lost among the geniuses in his own institute,” one friend recalled. A colleague added, “They more or less laughed behind his back.”
While the institute thrived in terms of cutting-edge biological research, its role in furthering the humanities, always a running joke among the elite scientists gathered there, faded quickly fromview. “It’s only half my dream, the biology half,” Salk confessed privately. “The humanity half of my dream has not been fulfilled.” There was worse to come. In perhaps the unkindest cut, Salk was forced to relinquish his laboratory — a devastating symbolic gesture — and given the honorary title of founding director, with a handsome salary and no role beyond the fund-raising magic of his name. “Salk,” Jacobs writes, “had been marginalized in the institute he had created.”
There would be one final victory, though. Believing his killed-virus polio vaccine to be safer than the live-virus version that had replaced it, Salk worked tirelessly in these years to improve its potency. Although he wouldn’t live long enough to enjoy his victory, the United States went back to his vaccine in the late 1990s, and the final push to end polio worldwide will require both vaccines — Salk’s and Sabin’s — to finish the job.
On the cover of Time magazine’s 1999 tribute to the 100 “greatest minds” of the 20th century is a rendering of Einstein on a couch being psychoanalyzed by Freud. On the table beside them is a photo of Jonas Salk. Some may dispute the comparison, but the message is clear. Salk remains the people’s scientist, the man who connected the wonders of the laboratory to the suffering of humankind — the man who saw beyond the microscope.
By Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs
Illustrated. 559 pp. Oxford University Press. $34.95.