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Jonas Salk’s Life, Career Explored In New Biography

Undated photo of Jonas Salk

Credit: Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Above: Undated photo of Jonas Salk

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Book cover of biography "Jonas Salk - A Life" by Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

As celebrations wind down marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jonas Salk, a new biography explores the many facets of the man who has been forever linked to San Diego's history.

The fame from his polio vaccine discovery in 1955 followed to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla. His name has been associated with how San Diego has developed into a center of science and culture.

“His mother told him he was born with a call — a destiny,” Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, author of the “Jonas Salk: A Life,” told KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday. “He believed her.”

Jacobs said Salk initially had an interest in practicing law but fell in love with science during his time at City College of New York.

“When he got into medical school, he just shined. He knew he wanted to do research. He wanted to make major changes that would affect the population,” said Jacobs, emeritus professor of medicine at Stanford University.

Jacobs said Salk stood out from his peers because he wanted to conduct research — not start a practice like most medical students.

That research paid off when he created the polio vaccine.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, polio epidemics increased in size and frequency before Salk discovered the vaccine. The disease left children paralyzed. Doctors used a tank respirator known as an Iron Lung to treat young patients. Some cases resulted in death.

In 1952 alone, nearly 60,000 children were infected with the virus. Thousands were paralyzed, and more than 3,000 died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After the vaccine was introduced in 1955, the number of cases rapidly declined. Health officials reported less than 2,500 cases in 1957. Only 61 cases of paralytic polio were reported by 1965.

“The world went crazy,” Jacobs said. “He became overnight an international hero.”

Polio has been eradicated in the U.S., but there are still cases in several other countries. The last U.S. case was reported in 1979.

Evening Edition host Peggy Pico speaks with Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, author of "Jonas Salk: A Life," about the new biography that explores the many facets of the man.


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