Jonas Salk Biography: Polio Vaccine, Life, Career & Wealth

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CDC, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jonas Salk (1914-1995) was an American virologist and medical researcher who is best known for developing the first successful polio vaccine. Born in New York City to Russian Jewish immigrants, Salk was the eldest of three brothers. His parents, Daniel and Dora Salk, were struggling to make ends meet and often had to rely on help from family and friends.

Despite the financial difficulties his family faced, Salk was determined to pursue an education. He graduated from the City College of New York in 1934 and went on to attend medical school at New York University. After completing his medical degree in 1939, he began working as a research assistant at the University of Michigan.

It was during his time at the University of Michigan that Salk became interested in virology and the search for a polio vaccine. Polio was a highly infectious and potentially fatal disease that was epidemic in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s. Salk dedicated his career to finding a vaccine, and in 1955, he succeeded in developing a safe and effective vaccine that would ultimately lead to the eradication of polio in the United States.

Salk’s work on the polio vaccine brought him worldwide recognition and acclaim. He was hailed as a hero and a savior, and his name became synonymous with medical progress and innovation. He was awarded numerous honors and accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.

Despite his achievements, Salk was known to be a modest and unassuming man who did not seek wealth or fame. In fact, he famously declined to patent his polio vaccine, stating that it belonged to the people and should be made available to everyone. This decision cost him a potential fortune in royalties, but it also ensured that the vaccine would be widely distributed and accessible to all.

In his later years, Salk continued to work on medical research and to advocate for public health. He founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, where he conducted research on cancer, multiple sclerosis, and other diseases. He died in 1995 at the age of 80, leaving behind a legacy of innovation, generosity, and selflessness.


1914 – Jonas Salk was born on October 28th in New York City.

1934 – Salk graduated from the City College of New York.

1939 – He completed his medical degree from New York University and began working as a research assistant at the University of Michigan.

1947 – Salk was appointed as the head of the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

1952 – He began testing his inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) on humans.

1953 – Salk and his team conducted a large-scale field trial of the IPV, which involved 1.8 million children.

1955 – The results of the field trial were announced, confirming that the IPV was safe and effective. The vaccine was approved for public use, leading to a sharp decline in the incidence of polio.

1963 – Salk founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, where he continued to conduct research on diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis.

1977 – Salk was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

1995 – Salk passed away on June 23rd in La Jolla, California, at the age of 80.

5 Interesting Facts About Jonas Salk:

  1. Salk was not interested in profiting from his discovery and did not patent the polio vaccine, which would have made him a very wealthy man. Instead, he wanted it to be widely available to everyone.
  2. Salk’s decision to use killed rather than live poliovirus in his vaccine was controversial at the time, but ultimately proved to be the safer and more effective approach.
  3. He was not the only researcher working on a polio vaccine at the time, but his vaccine was the first to be approved for public use.
  4. Salk’s work on the polio vaccine was supported by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, also known as the March of Dimes, which had been founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
  5. After the success of the polio vaccine, Salk became a sought-after speaker and traveled the world to share his insights on medical research and public health.

5 Quotes From Jonas Salk:

  1. “The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.”
  2. “The most important question we must ask ourselves is, ‘Are we being good ancestors?'”
  3. “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination, and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”
  4. “I have had dreams and I have had nightmares, but I have conquered my nightmares because of my dreams.”
  5. “Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.”

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