Tragic Success: The Surprising Fallout from Jonas Salk’s Polio Vaccine

Jonas Salk and Donna Lindsay Salk / Photo Courtesy of the family of Jonas Salk

Editor's Note:

Charlotte D. Jacobs, M.D. is the Ben and A. Jess Shenson Professor of Medicine (Emerita) at Stanford University. She has served as Senior Associate Dean and as Director of the Clinical Cancer Center, and is the author of Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease. Below she discusses researching her new book, Jonas Salk: A Life, and some of the most surprising discoveries she made about Salk in the process.

On April 12, 1955, celebration erupted worldwide, and Jonas Salk became the hero of my generation when the public learned he had discovered a vaccine that could prevent polio.

As I began my biographer’s sleuthing, I was surprised to find this international idol, whose smile shone from newspapers and magazines, did not live “happily ever after.” He suffered a great deal because of his fame. It started on the day of the announcement, when rebuke from the scientific community cast a shadow over his achievement. Some described the attendant publicity as a media circus, debasing medical science. Others accused Salk of grabbing the limelight, neglecting to mention those who had laid the groundwork for his vaccine. Although Salk tried to share the credit, it was out of his control: the public and the press made him the icon for polio prevention.

Salk received awards from heads of states around the world, yet few scientific societies honored him. Not a member of the scientific elite at the time, he had made and initially tested the polio vaccine in secret while challenging one of their firmly held principles — that only a vaccine made of live virus could impart lifelong immunity. Senior virologist Albert Sabin promulgated the impression of Salk as a technician who borrowed others’ methodologies to make the vaccine, calling him a “kitchen chemist.” Salk was passed up for the Nobel Prize; he was blackballed from the National Academy of Sciences. For whatever reason — insult, resentment, jealousy — disparagement of Salk surfaced. “The worst tragedy that could have befallen me was my success,” he later said. “I knew right away that I was through — cast out.”

This newfound celebrity placed enormous burdens on Salk.  Within a month following the news that polio could be prevented, he received thousands of letters, telegrams, and phone calls. He couldn’t enter a restaurant or hotel without causing a stir like a movie star. Although touched by every expression of gratitude, he was suffocating. And the emotional toll from con artists and stalkers was enormous. Fame taxed Salk’s wife and sons, as well. Their lives had revolved around him and his work; now they had to accommodate his celebrity and theirs by association.  His marriage ended in divorce.

Longing for refuge, Salk dreamed of creating a utopian institute where scientists and humanists would work side by side, imbuing the sciences with the conscience of man. With funds from National Foundation/March of Dimes, Salk built a Louis Kahn architectural masterpiece in La Jolla, California, and attracted a cadre of distinguished scholars. But he faced enormous difficulties — the maverick architect who spent more time dreaming than drawing; his own inept administrative skills, which left the Institute teetering on the edge of bankruptcy; a new president who said he could raise more money with Salk dead than alive; and in the end, deposal by those for whom he had built this Shangri-la. While a scientific success, the Salk Institute proved to be a personal failure — Salk’s most painful legacy.

In the meantime, Salk continued the fight against polio. His vaccine, made from killed poliovirus and given by injection, was replaced six years later with Sabin’s oral vaccine, made of live, weakened poliovirus, delivered in a sugar cube. Salk warned that live virus, although weakened, could revert to a virulent form and cause polio. In his efforts to have Sabin’s vaccine de-licensed, he was overruled by the major medical decision-makers. Salk set out to reverse what he called a risky, politically-driven decision in a fight that lasted the rest of his life.

In his seventies, Salk entered the AIDS arena. Disturbed by the number of young men dying of this devastating disease while no vaccine was forthcoming, he helped form a company to make one. Some called his work an old man’s attempt to recover his former glory; others thought his ideas ingenious. Having designed a treatment vaccine to delay the time between infection with the virus and fully developed AIDS, Salk reached an impasse with the FDA.

In seeking the man behind the image, I found that Salk had forged many roadblocks, making it difficult to reconcile the paradoxes of his life. He was far more complex than the public image of him — America’s beloved hero — and yet far more sensitive and caring than the distorted image suggested by some scientists — a glory-seeking dilettante. Despite being even tempered and composed, Salk seemed to generate controversy no matter what he set out to do. That wasn’t his intent, but he defied conventional wisdom — “marched to a different drummer,” he said. Although he personified equanimity, his personal notes reveal a man who felt the wounds inflicted by others and a man whose passion to solve the problems of the world helped him bear the pain generated by his fame.