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Jonas Salk's Life, Career Explored In New Biography

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October 29, 2015 1:13 p.m.

Jonas Salk's Life, Career Explored In New Biography


Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, author, "Jonas Salk: A Life"

Related Story: Jonas Salk's Life, Career Explored In New Biography


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.

This is KPBS midday edition I Maureen Cavanaugh. In a very real sense San Diego has adopted the legacy of Jonas Salk as part of its own. The fame around Dr. Salk with his polio vaccine was transferred to the impressive Institute that he found in La Jolla. His great name is associated with how San Diego has developed as a center of science and culture. Often the image of Jonas Salk the man has been eclipsed by his reputation and greater accomplishment. As celebrations Wine down the 100th anniversary of his birth a new biography attempts to explore the many facets of the man. Joining me is Charlotte DeCroes Jocobs. She's author of the book Jonas Salk -- for life. Welcome to the program.
Thank you.
Must be interesting to be talking about this book so closely associated with Jonas Salk.
It certainly is. As I looked on the cliffs yesterday, I can see why he fell in love with it here.
You can't discuss the fame of Jonas Salk without talking about how devastating the disease of polio was. Charlotte can you remind us about that? And are you going to that in your book.
It was a terrible disease because it mainly struck children. Some of them would suddenly develop a fever, sore throat, runny nose. During the night they would thrash about have electric shocks going through their bodies and within a brief time have an arm dangling useless or an inability to walk. If the polio virus protected the brain, the price of a child may not be able to breathe or swallow and often was placed in an Iron Lung or died immediately. By 1952 that were 57,000 cases in the United States and Jonas Salk knew he had to act.
There are many researchers working on a vaccine against polio at the time of the Salk discovery. What was different about his approach?
Most scientists believe that only vaccine made from a live virus could impart community as had been the case in the smallpox vaccine. Jonas Salk believed you could kill a virus so it would be safer and still evoke immunity. He went up against most of the senior leaders in the polio field.
Was he in exceptional student? Did show signs of exceptional promise while he was studying to be a doctor? Where did this come from?
I think it came from his mother. [ laughter ]
Let's always praise the mother. He grew up in an immigrant society and his mother told him he was born with a call. He believed her. That was a very likely to happen because he was a shy, small for his age bright but not brilliant child. He did fairly well in high school. He went to a [ Indiscernible ] school in New York City. He was going to be a lawyer. He wanted to save the world. His mother said you can even win an argument how can you be an effective lawyer. He fell in love with science during his undergraduate years and his grades work pretty good but not stellar. But when he got into medical school he just shine. He knew he wanted to do research. He wanted to make major changes that would affect the population and most people in that day and age when into practice so he was different and stood out at that time in his yearbook they said he was destined to be a professor of medicine.
In April 1955 when the announcement was made that a vaccine had been discovered to fight polio -- that polio was dead and this discovery may Jonas Salk very much a public figure. He really became a household name did and he?
That is absolutely correct. That was April 12 did and he?
That is absolutely correct. That was April 12, 1955. Under no discovery was the right word he actually made a vaccine. When the March of Dimes did a very large trial over 1 million children in the announcement was made in Ann Arbor Michigan that in fact polio could be prevented the world went crazy. There was church bells tolling, people running into the street writing we love you Dr. Salk Oliver St., Windows and he became an overnight international hero. While the public rushed to embrace him, the scientific world was honestly silent peer expect I want to go in that but first how did he handle the acclaim.
He was surprised. He was a humble man. He thought he would leave Ann Arbor the next day and go home and go back to work. He couldn't even get into his laboratory because there was huge of bundles of mail blocking the doorway. Within a month received 10,000 letters, telegrams, gifts. He was shocked at the response. He tried to deflect it a little bit and mention other people who had been involved in laying the groundwork but the public and the press had made him the icon for polio.
In your book Jonas Salk -- life you tell them about these letters that Jonas Salk received. He loved the letters from children.
Out of the thousands and thousands of letters he really did enjoy those from children. They were so warmhearted. There was a little girl from West Virginia who wrote the reason I'm writing this letter is was told to by Jerry Mahoney. He's a damning. He says you are a great man. Another little boy wrote. Although you are a small man you have a big mind. [ laughter ]
What a sense of relief that generation of children must have felt.
As you're saying Dr. Jonas Salk was a darling of the public but not of the scientific community. Why not?
There was an enormous amount of publicity and many of them described it as a circus or who blah that was unbecoming to the scientific community even though Salk had nothing to do with that planning that announcement. He didn't even know the results of the trial until breakfast the next morning. Secondly, he was a young scientist. He was not a member of the scientific brotherhood and he had made and tested a vaccine behind their backs. Really in secret while challenging this tenant that only vaccine could [ Indiscernible ]. He contributed to that. Jonas Salk was thankful that all of his research was funded by the public through their dimes. He told Secretary. Lorraine Friedman they had to be heard. All their letters have to be answered. So he would give interviews to parent magazine, good housekeeping, he went on television and showed them how to make a vaccine with a Waring blender. That's not what academic scientist in that day. The walls where high between the public and the scientific community. They accused him of pandering to the press. Let's face it with his result came a wave of celebrity in the history of medicine. So as one of his colleagues said let's not discount envy. Envy is in or miss in the field of science.
I was speaking with Charlotte Davis with her book of Jonas Salk a life. Do you think Charlotte his reaction by his colleagues influence his desire to get his own research Institute where he could pursue his own vision of science?
Yes and no. He was suffocating from his celebrity and he sought refuge. He had planned for the Salk Institute has he appreciated that he could do his research and fetid. He was funded by the March of Dimes. Think of all the other scientist that could accomplish if they had all the money and all the time in the world to do it. His initial concept was out of concern for other scientist and not as a refuge just for himself. He also -- he wanted scientists and humanists to work side-by-side and he made the statement in dealing science with the conscience of man. That was his big dream for the Institute.
For the Salk Inc. astute in La Jolla. Did it become what Jonas Salk envisioned?
Initially because all of their funding was covered. They had no administrative duties at all and they lived in this beautiful place. They also had a wonderful humanists Jacob [ Indiscernible - name ]. It seemed to be moving in that direction but as time went on they faced numerous problems financial and Jonas wasn't a terrific administrator and as time went on the science really eclipsed the humanities and later in life he said -- when someone said you must be so thrilled of what the Institute has become he said I'm only half happy because the Institute of science is unparalleled almost in the world that the humanities or not strong in the Institute.
In your book you describe a man who is not eager to talk about his personal life and yet his second marriage was to a very public person. The French artist [ Indiscernible - name ]. You describe their marriage as a most unusual arrangement. Why?
[ Indiscernible - name ] for you that don't know she's an excellent artist wrote a book life with Picasso wishy detailed her years as because his mistress. She was beautiful, she was younger than him, she was French and she was well known for her relationship with Picasso. When they met in La Jolla, he was smitten and in fact she too became an adman -- enamored of him and almost saw themselves as soulmate. She longed for privacy. She did not want to be a public person she longed for privacy and she described the early relationship on an island. She related the tale of Jonas wanting to get married and she said why and of course he professed his love for her and she gave him all the reasons that they could be married. He said make a list of what you need before you marry me. Gave her a piece of paper and came back later and looked over the entire list and said I can fulfill all of these. Which was so wonderful but one of them was that she could spend six months in France painting. Which was unusual. Initially his friend said they had never seen Jonas so happy. He had done things that he had never done before. Yoga, sailing, let his hair grow out, he went to the theater and eight healthy and they were happy for him but as time went on many said the relationship appeared more intellectual than as a factual than it had been.
He discovered the polio vaccine when he was 40 years old. People expected a great deal from him. They expected other breakthroughs but they never really happened. To explore that in your book? You give us a reason for that?
I do explore that. What are things he did do and he doesn't get a lot of recognition people don't know he codeveloped the first influenza vaccine. His research was all in influenza. That was major. He then worked on cancer which was -- hit a blind alley and he worked on multiple sclerosis and he was trying to desensitize people against a protein that he thought was destroying their nerves. Actually was getting good results when he -- they developed a allergic reaction to this protein. He couldn't continue the research because he ran out of funds. Another major role that he played is in the eighth saga. Jonas Salk enter the AIDS arena when he was in his 70s and he planned -- people not doing too much research and no vaccine was forthcoming so he planned a treatment vaccine using a killed virus that would delay the time between when people where infected with HIV and when they developed full-blown AIDS and those trials work running patients at USC and actually did show a drop in viral load and improvement in community and they were planning a very big national randomized trial when he died. I think an important role that Jonas played in the eighth saga if our writing the history of AIDS is at the time he entered that field most people weren't ignoring AIDS in the public or blaming it on dates -- gaze. -- Gaze. The press followed him everywhere but he was able to let the public realize he was not just a disease but this was a disease that should concern all of us. He brought attention to the AIDS problem.
Finally, I think it will come as a surprise to many people to realize that the man who gave the world the first polio vaccine never got a Nobel prize.
Yes. He was nominated several time. The lead of the committee reviewed his work every time. He was up by all adjust from Sweden. He said I can't repeat socks are -- socks work here if not prize worth the basic science. Maybe that is the case. They may not fulfill a definition of the Nobel prize that he got blackballed from the National Academy of Sciences. The major scientific organization in the United States. That was egregious. People said -- Albert saying who led the charge against him said his work is kitchen chemistry and you can go into a kitchen and do what he did that. That was shameful.
I want to let everyone know that you will be speaking more about this book Jonas Salk -- a life today at four at the Salk Institute. Charlotte Jacobs thank you so much for speaking with us.
Thank you.