Pharmacy's History: Jonas Salk’s Virus Research Led to the Polio Vaccine

Pharmacy TimesJune 2020
Volume 88
Issue 6

The medical pioneer never patented or profited from his work that saved untold numbers of lives.

Jonas Edward Salk was born on October 28, 1914 in New York City.1

The eldest of 3 sons, he was the first member of his family to attend college. In 1939, Salk earned his medical degree from the New York University School of Medicine and worked as a scientist physician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.1

Several years later, while on a vaccine research fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he became an assistant professor of epidemiology. Salk worked closely with his mentor, Thomas Francis Jr, MD, who taught him the methodology of vaccine development.

By 1947, Salk was appointed director of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania, where he began working on the early stages of a vaccine for paralytic poliomyelitis. Contrary to popular belief, he thought that his vaccine, made of “killed” polio virus, could immunize patients without the risk of infection. Salk tested this vaccine on a few healthy volunteers who had not had polio, including colleagues, family members, and himself, who all developed antipolio antibodies and had no negative reactions to the vaccine.

After national testing on 1 million children, aged 6 to 9 years, known as the “polio pioneers,” in 1955 it was announced that the vaccine was safe and effective.1 In the 2 years before the vaccine was widely available, there were more than 45,000 cases of polio in the United States. This number dropped to 910 in 1962.1 Salk never earned any money from his work or patented the vaccine, as he preferred it to be as widely distributed as possible.

With a grant from the National Science Foundation and support from the March of Dimes, he founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, in 1963. His last years were spent searching for an AIDS vaccine. He died at the age of 80 in 1995.1

Salk’s philosophy is memorialized with his famous quote: “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination, and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”1

Today, the Salk Institute is home to many scientists who conduct medical research on a variety of topics such as aging, cancer, diabetes, and immunology.


History of Salk. Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Accessed May 27, 2020.

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