Salk Institute
About Jonas Salk
About Jonas Salk

When Dr. Jonas Salk envisioned the idea of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, it was with the idea of creating a vibrant, intellectual community, dedicated to pursuing the kinds of scientific achievements that had made him an international figure only five years before.

Salk came to La Jolla following a career in clinical medicine and virology research. After obtaining his M.D. degree at the New York University School of Medicine in 1939, he was a staff physician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Jonas Salk

He then joined his mentor, Dr. Thomas Francis, as a research fellow at the University of Michigan. There, he worked to develop an influenza vaccine at the behest of the U.S. Army. In 1947, he was appointed director of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

It was in Pittsburgh that Salk began to put together the techniques that would lead to his polio vaccine. He was already struck by the principle of vaccination: that if the body is artificially exposed to a harmless form of a disease virus, the body will produce antibodies that resist or kill the dangerous form of the virus if later exposed. In contrast to the Pasteurian dogma of the times, Salk believed that protective immunity could be induced without infection by a living virus such as those used in the vaccines against smallpox and rabies. In developing the influenza vaccine, he had observed that protection could be established using noninfectious, inactivated (killed) viruses.

Salk's research caught the attention of Basil O'Connor, president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now known as the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation). The organization decided to fund Salk's efforts to develop a killed virus vaccine against the most frightening scourge of the time: paralytic poliomyelitis.

Using formaldehyde, Salk killed the poliovirus, but kept it intact enough to trigger the necessary immune response. His work was enabled by a key achievement made by Harvard researcher John Enders. Enders and his team had figured out how to grow poliovirus in test tubes. This step was necessary to obtain the quantities of pure virus needed to develop and manufacture a vaccine.

The resulting injectable vaccine was tested first in monkeys and then in patients at the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children (now The Watson Institute), who already had polio.

Next, vaccine was given to volunteers who had not had polio, including Salk, his laboratory staff, his wife and their children. The volunteers developed anti-polio antibodies and none had bad reactions to the vaccine. Finally, in 1954, national testing began on one million children, ages six to nine, who became known as the Polio Pioneers: half received the vaccine, and half received a placebo. One-third of the children, who lived in areas where vaccine was not available, were observed to evaluate the background level of polio in this age group. On April 12, 1955, the results were announced: the vaccine was safe and effective. In the two years before vaccine was widely available, the average number of polio cases in the U.S. was more than 45,000. By 1962, that number had dropped to 910. Salk never patented the vaccine, nor did he earn any money from his discovery, preferring to see it distributed as widely as possible.

Given the fear and anxiety that polio caused during the first half of the century, the vaccine's success in 1955 made Salk an international hero, and he spent the late 1950s refining the vaccine and establishing the scientific principles behind it. By 1960, however, Salk was ready to move on. Salk's dream was to create an independent research center where a community of scholars interested in different aspects of biology – the study of life – could come together to follow their curiosity.

For more than a year, Salk toured the country in search of the right location for his research center. For San Diego mayor Charles Dail, a polio survivor, bringing the Salk Institute to San Diego was a personal quest. Dail showed Salk 27 acres on a mesa in La Jolla, just west of the proposed site for the new University of California campus then planned for San Diego. In June 1960, in a special referendum, the citizens of San Diego voted overwhelmingly to give the land for Salk's dream. With initial financial support from the National Foundation/March of Dimes, Salk and Kahn were able to proceed. To bring his concept of free-flowing labs and quiet studies to life, Salk recruited architect Louis Kahn. The resulting collaboration is a series of elegant concrete structures that overlook the Pacific Ocean.

Under Salk's direction, the Institute began research activities in 1963 and gradually expanded its faculty and the areas of their research interests. Salk's personal research activities included multiple sclerosis and autoimmune diseases, cancer immunology, improved manufacture and standardization of killed poliovirus vaccine, and the development of an AIDS vaccine. He published several philosophical books and advocated cooperative rather than confrontational approaches to addressing human needs.

Completed in 1967, the original Institute buildings were declared an historic landmark in 1991. During Salk's tenure as Founding Director, a major building addition consistent with his and Louis Kahn's original architectural vision was designed and constructed. The Institute now has 61 faculty members and a scientific of staff of more than 850, with labs that house research on everything from cancer, diabetes and birth defects to Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, AIDS and plant biology.

The Salk Institute truly reflects the broad, humanistic interests of its namesake.

Salk died at age 80 on June 23, 1995. A memorial at the Institute with a statement from Salk captures his vision: "Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality."


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