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Gathering Of Great Minds: Creating San Diego's Salk Institute

February 20, 2014 1:09 p.m.


Suzanne Bourgeois, Founding Director of Regulatory Biology Laboratory, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, author, "The Genesis of the Salk Institute: The Epic of its Founders".

Related Story: Gathering Of Great Minds: Creating San Diego's Salk Institute


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. After he developed this is vaccine that wiped out polio, Jonas Salk had another great scientific question, you want to create a research Institute bringing together the best scientists and extraordinary thinkers to unlock the mysteries of human biology. More than fifty years later, the Salk Institute is a striping intellectually and artistic treasure for San Diego, it's been in a central part of making San Diego hub in the biotech industry. It took a combination of ego, passion, generosity, and good luck to start the Salk Institute and the stories being told by a woman who was there was at the beginning. It's a measure to welcome my guest, the founding director of Salk's regulatory biology laboratory, her book is called the genesis of the Salk Institute. Welcome to the program. You paint a picture of brilliant and passionate people developing the Salk Institute in the early 60s, how exciting was it to be a part of that?

SUZANNE BOURGEOIS: That we did not quite realize for the GroupWise, it was very painful and actually very difficult, so many times we thought it was not going to work out, the Salk Institute is somewhat of a miracle. And survived and it did happen and raise to the position that is in now, because it was very risky.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What are some of the things that we will learn in this book about this group of people who came together to make this vision into reality?

SUZANNE BOURGEOIS: What it took fifty years ago to create such an Institute, it took block, a special part of architect, special location, and people who had guts and risktakers. That was the hardest part, to get the right people to be willing to try it. Even the people who were there did not know how to spell it, and in the archives and found about five different spellings of La Jolla over and over.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: No, how did Jenna Salk Jonas Salk bought this to be different from other research facilities?

SUZANNE BOURGEOIS: He had a very clear not vision and he first of all wanted it to be small, and . He wanted it to be very flexible, so that the staff and the building itself could evolve and change, and meeting the requirements of staffing and technology, if you wanted people to be completely free to do whatever they wanted in the area of public health. So people could teach if they wanted to, that was the freedom they wanted.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As opposed to being attached to a university.

SUZANNE BOURGEOIS: Exactly, course I was for 2020 years a professor, and of course it can just do that, but it was the freedom to do what you wanted and some of the creatures researchers some of the researchers don't want to teach, and the science of freedom and possibility.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Was important for you to write this book about the beginning of the Salk Institute?

SUZANNE BOURGEOIS: In 2005 and was the polio vaccine was a success, and books came out the time it began with a very good story, it's been told that he times and those always told in the same place, the significance of the Salk Institute and a study to have that and somebody has to write the rest of the story, Jonas Salk was only forty cheers forty years old when he came up with the polio vaccine and he created the Salk Institute and I was the only one who had seen everything since the very beginning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Talk about doing something in the second half of your life, creating this Institute and getting together a group of renowned Nobel prize-winning scientist, people like Francis crick, how would they enticed to such a fledgling research Institute in a town that nobody could spell correctly?

SUZANNE BOURGEOIS: With difficulty, with much difficulty and can assure you. There are people we are worried about taking on the risk because nobody knew what La Jolla and if it was difficult convince people and there was no building, he was a big risk and we had a handful of founders that really had the guts of the courage to actually come and get it started.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And eventually it did have a building, ability. For building, a beautiful building, published you think the sheer beauty of the location of that felt location has added to the kinds of research and the kinds of intellectual advancement that is gone and said the building?

SUZANNE BOURGEOIS: That is a difficult question, I know that it was not an attraction in the meeting for the founders, because the building did not exist. When we arrived, the account link was a whole in the ground, we worked in parks. It was a problem, attracting to people to a place to work in parks, at that time it was not a incentive, but later on as the building became used in changed and remodeled to accept new technologies and new people, it's really a building that is very much alive and it can evolve, that became very attractive.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I only have about a minute left, but speaking about how the Salk Institute has evolved, how is it changed over the years?

SUZANNE BOURGEOIS: That has grown bigger, it's about double the size of what Jonas had dreamed of, but it is still small and it still has the same as bowls of freedom and flexibility in small size, and is still interested in the issues of public health which is what Jonas Salk had worked towards, and is still an issue because the biggest issue is aging healthy and healthy aging is the huge focus of the Institute, it's in the same spirit as the beginning with issues of public health.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay, that may tell everyone. Book is called the genesis of the Salk Salk Institute, the epic of its founders, it's been my pleasure to speak to Suzanne.

SUZANNE BOURGEOIS: Thank you Maureen, it has been a pleasure.