Inside Salk; Salk Insitute

The Legacy of Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk

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On October 28, 1994, the staff of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies gathered in the windy courtyard to celebrate what would be the 80-year-old founder’s last birthday.

After his friends and colleagues had taken turns speaking to the assemblage, Jonas Salk, one of the most famous scientists in history, took the podium. Salk surveyed the attendees: staff and scientific luminaries, including several Nobel laureates, who had joined in his dream of collaborating across scientific boundaries to solve the world’s problems.

“I express my gratitude for the opportunity I had to provide you with the opportunity to bring out the best in yourselves,” said Salk, draped in a giant lei, a birthday gift from the chair of the Institute’s board. “This is what the Institute was intended for.”

It must have been a gratifying moment. Not only had Salk developed the first successful polio vaccine, making history by conquering one of the world’s most terrifying diseases, he’d also lived to see the Institute, which he called his “experiment,” grow into a research facility with an international reputation for cutting-edge biological work.

Heart failure led to Salk’s death the following June. His influence on the world did not end then, however. Salk, who made Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, saved countless lives through the polio vaccine. And through the Salk Institute, he is still enabling some of the world’s greatest thinkers to make life-changing discoveries.

Looking back, it is hard to pinpoint precisely what it was about Jonas Salk that led him to such tremendous success, not once, but twice. The recollections of those who knew the man–a philosophical, confident and soft-spoken scientist who eschewed publicity while relentlessly tackling global health issues–demonstrate a lasting legacy and positive influence on the future.


How do you top coming up with the world’s first effective polio vaccine? For many scientists, that would have been a sufficient, career-culminating event. But not for Jonas Salk. After his work on the vaccine, he was determined to fight other global health threats. The best way to do that, he reasoned, was to bring together thinkers from across fields of study in a space that supported scientific creativity–a space that didn’t just provide laboratory equipment, but encouraged cross-disciplinary breakthroughs, too.

In 1960, Salk achieved the beginnings of his second legacy: he formally founded an ambitious, multidisciplinary institute in what was then a little-known area of San Diego, California. He envisioned establishing what he called a “crucible of creativity” that would encourage collaboration over competition, mutual appreciation over siloed departments, and a pervasive sense that everyone’s work, in however small a way, contributed to bettering the human condition. To manifest this vision, he worked with famed architect Louis Kahn to design a space that reflected these ideals while recruiting some of the best minds in a variety of disciplines, including future Nobel Prize winners Francis Crick, Renato Dulbecco and Jacques Monod.

“He was not at all afraid to populate the Institute with scientists famous in their own right,” says Greg Lemke, a professor in the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, whose accomplishments have led to a greater understanding of the immune and nervous systems. “There’s a real danger for people with his level of fame to surround themselves with acolytes. Instead, he recognized that if you gather the brightest minds and give them a place to collaborate, new scientific findings would emerge. That is how he built a successful institute.”

In her book, Genesis of the Salk Institute, professor emeritus Suzanne Bourgeois reflects on how Salk’s vision attracted and inspired an impressive generation of scientific minds. And even when the Institute was securing funding in the early days, it “had assets more valuable than money: a reputation of distinction, a great building, and many loyal employees, both faculty and support staff, for whom the Salk Institute was not just a job, it was a dream,” she wrote (pg. 180).*

Salk conveyed this dream not just through the conviction of his scientific endeavors, but also through a faith in intuition and an appetite for risk-taking, something he instilled in the Institute’s culture. He inspired his colleagues to trust their guts, in both science and life, a philosophy that permeated many of his interactions at the Institute.

“The only advice I ever followed I got from Jonas: ‘Do what makes your heart leap,’” says Bourgeois, who, along with future husband and founding fellow Melvin Cohn, now also a professor emeritus, were early recruits to the Institute. At Salk, Bourgeois accomplished pioneering work on the regulation of gene expression, while Cohn carried out seminal studies of the body’s immune response.

During his four decades at the Institute, Inder Verma, professor of genetics and one of the world’s leading authorities on gene therapy, says that he received three pieces of advice from Jonas Salk that he has carried with him ever since. In addressing the entire faculty, Salk counseled them to be “good ancestors.” To new faculty, he specifically called upon them to do what was good for the Institute. And to Verma himself, when Verma had lamented the lack of credit for a service he provided, Salk advised him to remember that the reward of work well done is to be asked to do it again.

“These became three of my defining guideposts,” says Verma, holder of the Irwin and Joan Jacobs Chair in Exemplary Life Science.

Salk illustrated this last piece of advice one day when Verma bumped into him in the Institute’s courtyard. The visibly excited Salk said that he had just met an old acquaintance who had brought along a teenage grandson.

When introduced to the man who conquered polio, the boy nonchalantly asked what polio was. The disease had been controlled so thoroughly in the country that the grandson had never heard of it, which Salk considered to be the ultimate triumph. “This is one of Jonas’ gifts to me: a demonstration that reward is in the outcome, not the gratification of recognition,” says Verma.

From left, clockwise: Francis Crick, Edwin Lennox, Jacques Monod, Jonas Salk, Leslie Orgel, Melvin Cohn, Salvador Luria, Jacob Bronowski, Renalto Dulbecco (1996)


Jonas Salk was particularly invested in the idea of lowering walls–literal and metaphorical– between fields of study, with a focus on bringing together the arts and sciences. The institute he designed with Kahn embodied this philosophy: not only is it visited by tourists from across the globe for its remarkable design, but its central open courtyard and unique absence of dividing walls between labs foster daily collaboration and interaction among scientists.

Within this structure, the Institute bridges disciplines of molecular, cellular, systems, behavioral and computational biology across a range of disease areas. Collaborations between Salk scientists are a direct result of the Institute’s unique culture and physical structure, according to director of the Salk Institute Cancer Center Tony Hunter, whose groundbreaking research has led to new leukemia treatments. “To be successful, we have to collaborate and be greater than the sum of our parts,” says Hunter, holder of the Renato Dulbecco Chair. “I believe that’s how we’ve been able to achieve so much despite being a small institute.”

It was crucial to work with people who had different interests and areas of expertise, in Salk’s view. Some of Salk’s early appointments emphasized his push for interdisciplinary efforts, including his decision to bring in faculty who weren’t typical biologists, such as Salk Founding Fellow, mathematician and poet Jacob Bronowski and, in 1970, junior faculty member Ursula Bellugi, who later became a world-renowned expert on signed languages.

“He said to me, ‘I love your research because it reveals how nature creates defects and the human mind overcomes them,’” says Bellugi, who is now director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience.

Bellugi recalls that Salk frequently stopped by the lab to chat with study participants and their families. With his support, Bellugi and her lab eventually bridged linguistics and molecular studies to develop breakthrough insights into the neurobiological basis of language and a genetic condition known as Williams Syndrome.

Even today, despite not having a formal humanities program, the Institute is known for its deep appreciation of the arts. Every year, it hosts talks by renowned authors (most recently Jared Diamond and Michael Pollan), a classical music series and symphony concerts in the courtyard. Recent exhibitions by leading artists include the works of glass sculptor Dale Chihuly and painter–and Salk widow–Françoise Gilot.

Salk’s ideas about breaking down the boundaries between labs extended to how an individual scientist defined his or her field of research. Salk professor Fred Gage, whose work has led to an abundance of critical new knowledge in genetics and neuroscience, says Salk promoted the idea that scientists should be able to go deep into an area of research but also be able to turn and move in a completely different direction without being constrained.

“This freedom,” says Gage, holder of the Vi and John Adler Chair for Research on Age-Related Neurodegenerative Disease, “has allowed many very successful scientists to pursue multiple scientific directions in their careers at the Salk Institute. You can’t do that in many places.”


Jonas Salk never intended to be an iconoclast says his youngest son, Jonathan Salk, a psychiatrist based in Los Angeles. But when Jonas Salk believed something to be true– through a combination of logic and instinct– he followed it through to the end. His restless, unyielding drive led him not only to develop an inactivated virus vaccine for polio when others insisted it couldn’t be done, but to found an institution that approached creativity in science from a multidisciplinary focus, a tactic increasingly common in research institutes today but fairly unusual at the time.

In the lab, Salk’s approach was similarly unconventional as he explored promising concepts. Eldest son Peter Salk, a physician who worked with his father on cancer, multiple sclerosis and AIDS vaccine research, recalled that Jonas Salk would come into the lab on occasion with a new idea that would turn things “topsy turvy.” This ability to look at things from a new angle also led him to create clear representations of complex data, which he called “making the invisible visible,” says Peter Salk.

Jonas Salk often walked the halls to think and, during one walk, he told Ronald Evans, director of the Institute’s Gene Expression Laboratory, that risks pay off in science as well as in life, a truism easy to say but one that Salk demonstrated in his two greatest legacies. “Jonas was a visionary who was not only brilliant but thought differently,” says Evans, holder of the March of Dimes Chair in Molecular and Developmental Biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator whose innovative work on hormones has led to more than half a dozen drugs for cancer and other diseases.

Salk also urged other scientists to take risks when their instincts prompted them to do so. For instance, he once asked Greg Lemke whether Lemke was a mutant. The two had been talking about an experiment involving mutant mice, and Lemke thought Salk was asking him about the mice. But in fact, Salk was using the term to distinguish between “evolvers” and “maintainers” of the status quo.

“There were things that became clear as Jonas explained this,” said Lemke, who holds the Françoise Gilot-Salk Chair. “First, that Jonas considered himself as a mutant, and second, that he wanted this Institute to be populated by mutants. My answer today would be: I hope I am a mutant.”

Like any public figure–particularly one who was a nonconformist–Salk had his disappointments. An intensely private man, he was not comfortable in the limelight, and the constant media attention aroused resentment from some in the scientific community. Salk was never inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, nor did he receive the Nobel Prize, a decision that some still say was unfortunate. Nevertheless, Salk seemed to take it in stride, an example of good faith for his colleagues.

“I often said to him that he should have received the Nobel Prize,” says Distinguished Salk Professor Roger Guillemin, Nobel laureate, who joined the Institute in 1970. “He’d smile and say, ‘Everyone thinks I did, so it makes no difference.’”


In addition to encouraging innovations in science, Salk also saw the Institute as an incubator for the next generation of trailblazers in their fields. Even though it was never a degree-granting center, more than 3,200 postdoctoral fellows and graduate students have trained within its walls, and several have gone on to win Nobel prizes.

“Jonas saw the Salk Institute as an artists’ colony for scientists, and the people who learn their trade here carry that ethos and creative inclination with them,” says William Brody, president of the Institute. “When young scientists are exposed to our great thinkers and dynamic intellectual environment, it alters their perspective on what’s possible.”

But it wasn’t only scientists that Salk wanted to educate. Passing on knowledge to the public–especially the younger generations– to help them be “good ancestors” was especially important to him, maybe in part because he had seen the power of an educated public during the March of Dimes campaign to fundraise for development and testing of his polio vaccine, leading to its quick and widespread use.

Molly Hart Lebherz met Salk in the early 1990s at a group discussion on peace advocacy when she was working as a science education activist at what would later become the Foundation for Global Community. At first, she was star struck at meeting the person who had banished the “dark cloud” of fear of polio that she recalled from her childhood, but his kind demeanor soon put her at ease. Through their friendship, the Institute helped the foundation distribute the 1972 photo of Earth taken on the Apollo 17 mission to classrooms to serve as a visual teaching tool on conservation. Salk, she said, loved the idea and called the image the “best reference material.”

“He thought that there was nothing more important than impacting the next generation with a positive point of view. He wanted me to convey to them that humanity makes mistakes, but we can fix them,” Lebherz says, adding that she, professor emeritus Walter Eckhart and Salk often gathered, sometimes as frequently as once a month, to brainstorm new ways to reach students. “He asked me to stress to the children that their minds were the most important laboratory.”

Today, the Institute continues to communicate the importance of science outside the lab through four different elementary and high school science outreach programs. Each year, Salk’s Education Outreach program reaches about 3,000 middle and high school students in San Diego County with programs designed to inspire them to pursue studies and careers in science.

These outreach efforts are just one of the many ways Jonas Salk’s life continues to have an immeasurable impact on the world 100 years after he was born. His commitment to leave the world a better place drove his philosophical optimism, an optimism that inspired the people he knew and that is woven into the fabric of the institute he built.

“I took to heart an idea from Jonas that you get what you focus upon,” says Eckhart. “For Jonas, I think his goal was always for science to do something helpful for humanity.”

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