The story of Jonas Salk and his race against polio has been told and retold many times. But when a flood of new books hit the shelves in 2005 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Salk polio vaccine, Suzanne Bourgeois was struck by something they all had in common.
"All these books said little or nothing about the Salk Institute and left one wondering what had happened to Jonas Salk subsequently," she says.
"Jonas Salk should be recognized for two major achievements: One is the polio vaccine and the other is the Salk Institute," says Bourgeois, a professor and founder of the Regulatory Biology Laboratory, whose own life history is inseparably entwined with the Institute and reaches back to a time when the Salk Institute was a mere dream in the minds of a handful of scientists.
When it became clear to her that the Salk Institute's history was being overlooked, Bourgeois decided to tell the story that had never been told. Drawing from a unique combination of personal experience, painstaking research and a treasure trove of diaries, she is in the midst of writing a book about the extraordinary events and people that created the Salk Institute.
She has been fascinated with its history since the beginning — keeping pamphlets, booklets and a diary since her mid-20s. "I think I'm probably the only one who has daily records of what happened," she says.
A native of Belgium, Bourgeois went to Paris in 1961 to work in Jacques Monod's laboratory at the Pasteur Institute. Melvin Cohn, a professor at Stanford University and his friend Edwin Lennox, a professor at New York University, arrived in Monod's lab around the same time. Bourgeois recalls Ed and Mel talking a lot about "that mysterious institute that Jonas Salk was planning to build in La Jolla."
Over time, the idea of the Institute evolved and took shape. Salk enlisted a remarkable group of people for the Board of Trustees, with Warren Weaver, who in 1938 had coined the term "molecular biology," at the helm. In addition to Salk, Cohn, Lennox, Renato Dulbecco, a virologist at CalTech, and Jacob Bronowski, a mathematician, signed on as resident fellows. Monod, Francis Crick, who worked in Cambridge at the time, and Leo Szilard, the physicist who had conceived the nuclear chain reaction, took on an advisory role as non-resident fellows.
"What people may not realize is that the first faculty meetings for the Salk Institute were held at the Pasteur Institute in Paris," says Bourgeois. "That's where the founding members discussed what kind of institute they envisioned."
But the person who made the new institute a reality was Basil O'Connor, the founding president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which later became known as the March of Dimes. O'Connor had supported the development of the polio vaccine; now he encouraged Salk's new dream and provided the financial foundation for the Institute. His name is inscribed in the stairs that lead up to the Institute's central courtyard.
Construction began in 1962 on land donated by the City of San Diego. The following year, Suzanne and Mel got married and along with the other resident fellows, set up their laboratories in temporary buildings, wooden structures which they lovingly called "the barracks." They moved into the permanent facility in 1966, and almost half a century later, the temporary buildings still house laboratories.
For the past two years, Bourgeois has dedicated most of her time unearthing information that could shine light on the beginnings of the Institute. She's combed through the papers of Szilard and Crick at the UCSD library and was granted permission by Salk's sons to peruse their father's documents.
"I've known the sons of Jonas Salk since they were teenagers and they have been very generous and supportive," she says. "I've also poked around the entire building, the pipe spaces, basements, off-site storage facilities, everywhere."
At one point during her search, she discovered several filing cabinets, some of which were marked "trash." After taking a closer look, she realized she had struck gold. Filed away in the old cabinets were Salk Institute's early archives, which she saved from nearly being destroyed.
"It's a great source of information that is available nowhere else," she says. "I've known everybody involved and it's essential to have this documented chronicle and the view of an insider. It's important to do this while we still have a chance," says Bourgeois.
Roger Guillemin, interim president of the Salk Institute, agrees: "The enormous commitment of time and research combined with her unique perspective as one of the last surviving witnesses assures that Suzanne's personal account will provide a fascinating insight into the history of the Institute from the very beginning."
Bourgeois is working by herself and organizing the vast amount of information she gathered takes time, though. "It's like a huge puzzle and now I have to put all these pieces together," she says.