To the general public, Pittsburgh is the land of sports superstars but to me it will always be the land of Dr. Jonas Salk. It was here that he developed the polio vaccine taming a virus that struck fear in the population.
Reading the excellent new biography of Salk, Jonas Salk: A Life by Dr. Charlotte Jacobs, reinforced that conclusion. I have read several books about polio and the race for the vaccine but none focused exclusively on Dr. Salk. To me the strength of Dr. Jacobs' book is that it doesn't just end with the conquering of polio but spends much time on Dr. Salk's post-polio life.
One might think that once he received the deserved acclaim from the development of the vaccine that all would be smooth-sailing for Dr. Salk. However, that wasn't totally the case. The trials and tribulations that Dr. Salk endured trying to establish and maintain the institution that still bears his name is a case in point.
The most intriguing part of the book is Dr. Salk's battle with HIV, which occurred in the last years of his life. At this time, Dr. Salk had closed his laboratory and was focused more on philosophy and the humanities than medicine per se. However, this man -- who believed he was destined to be a benefactor of humanity -- delved back into the field and developed an approach to a vaccine. As Dr. Jacobs writes, "When the desperate need for an AIDS vaccine became apparent, Salk found a raison d’être.”
The approach he favored was that of a therapeutic, as opposed to preventative, vaccine in which the vaccine would be administered to those already infected with HIV with the hope that it might boost immune responses to the virus. If successful, such a vaccine would provide a "functional cure" for HIV. Needless to say and not surprising, such an approach, with some modernization, is still alive.
I read biographies not just for their historical value, but for inspiration. In that vein, my favorite passage from the book is this (from the last pages):
“...he held strong convictions. Certain about the merit of the things he had done, the things he wanted to do, he rarely expressed self-doubt. Connected to this, he was unrelenting, repeating his view over and over, never seeming piqued or tired. Once he determined a course of action, he would not waver from it. His persistence exasperated those on the receiving end.”
As I write this on the eve of Thanksgiving -- a holiday that celebrates the abundance made possible by productivity -- I am thankful for Dr. Jonas Salk whose work to rid the world of polio not only saved countless lives and raised the standard of living of the entire race but provides inspiration.
Thank you Dr. Salk.