"I wish this had never happened to me": Jonas Salk cured polio, only to be shunned by science

Jealous peers mocked him. His polio vaccine saved countless lives, but never won Nobel. Science is so high school

Published June 14, 2015 2:00PM (EDT)

Dr. Jonas Salk  in his lab in Pittsburgh, Pa., Oct. 7, 1954.         (AP)
Dr. Jonas Salk in his lab in Pittsburgh, Pa., Oct. 7, 1954. (AP)

Excerpted from "Jonas Salk: A Life"

Jonas Salk was suffering under fame’s heavy load.“His life did change immediately with the April announcement,” Darrell later said, “but it just took him time to realize it.” The interruptions and obligations were overt, the altered relationships subtle. People looked at and treated Salk differently. He never knew whether they were interested in Jonas Salk the person or Jonas Salk the icon. Old classmates and friends didn’t hesitate to call upon him for favors. Every letter, no matter how pleasant, seemed to have some underlying agenda. To make matters worse, one question always hovered: What great feat would he accomplish next? If Salk submitted any new data, it made headlines, embarrassing him. At a meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences, when he mentioned the idea of a vaccine against a number of viruses that attack the nervous system, the press announced: “All Virus Vaccine Eyed by Dr. Salk.” When a reporter said, “I hear you’re trying to find an anti-cold vaccine,” Salk replied, “All I’m trying to do is keep my balance.” “Balance” meant returning to his laboratory work uninterrupted.

There he faced an immediate problem; few of his staff remained. Initially the Pittsburgh team had felt “elated,” lab assistant Donald Wegemer recalled. Julius Youngner told a reporter he considered his role in preventing polio the highlight of his career. “This was like a rocket going off,” he said, “a space shot.” In Ann Arbor, however, a wave of discord had started to build. Members of Salk’s research team attended the meeting as honored guests, their trip paid for by the NFIP. They waited for recognition as Salk went through his long list of acknowledgments. “This opportunity would have no meaning,” he finally said, “if it were not for the devotion with which each of the...group that comprises our laboratory contributed and shared in that which needed to be done.” He did not name them individually. That night on See It Now he paid tribute to his laboratory coworkers again, but after years of dedication, some considered this recognition insufficient. In his glorification, they felt Salk had risen above them, and some started referring to him as “Jonas E. Christ.”

The team left Ann Arbor without fanfare. No reporters flocked around them; no special celebration had been planned. Julius Youngner got drunk on the plane to California. Byron Bennett and James Lewis took a train back to Pittsburgh with Bennett in tears. Youngner, the most vocal, told a journalist that while Salk raised research funds, fought with his scientific opponents, and dealt with the public and the press, he stayed in the lab and conducted the experiments. In a later interview with historian David Oshinsky, Youngner offered a litany of complaints that had been festering for years, painting a portrait of Salk as an insensitive autocrat who not only failed to give him proper recognition but also stole his work.

Not everyone felt this way. Don Wegemer disagreed with Youngner’s claims: “[Salk] recognized people’s abilities and gave them credit. Some people figured they should have got more credit, which is a problem for them.” Lewis, too, painted a different picture of his boss. “It seems I will always be a part of the place,” he wrote Salk after taking a position elsewhere. “This feeling comes to all of us who were associated with you, chiefly because you have left us feeling this way.” It is hard to discern where the truth lies years after the fact. “Sharing research is an evolving process,” noted Campbell Moses, one of Salk’s Pitt colleagues, “and for every discovery of note someone probably feels a little left out.” Others thought Youngner more than a bit self-promoting. Although Salk instilled a sense of purpose in his group, he did not shower them with praise. No one recalls lab parties or dinners at the Salks’ home. But every person in his laboratory could have left at any time. Yet they had stayed— at least until April 12.

Salk tried to make amends. He broke protocol when he insisted on recognizing “the untiring devotion of my staff ” while receiving his presidential citation. In an interview for the Pittsburgh Press, he talked about the team effort, commending his dedicated group of fifty, naming Percival Bazeley, Byron Bennett, Ulrich Krech, James Lewis, Elsie Ward, and Julius Youngner, in alphabetical order. But these attempts did not appease those who felt bruised. Youngner left Salk’s lab to work in the microbiology department. Lewis took a job with the National Drug Company. Bazeley and Krech, in the United States on visas, had to return to their respective countries. By the spring of 1957, only Elsie Ward, Donald Wegemer, a few technicians, and Lorraine Friedman remained of Salk’s original team. When a prominent British pathologist requested to visit the lab, Salk expressed a bit of embarrassment. “I will tell you quite candidly that we are in a state of transition.” With Bazeley, he spoke more candidly about the upheaval. “I have learned,” he wrote, “what happens to one’s energies and how they can be drained extravagantly, and unprofitably, by unwise selections that have been allowed to continue too long.”

When Salk did return to academic life, he found a chasm had developed between himself and the scientific community. He shouldn’t have been surprised. In the year following the announcement, amid all the mail and calls he received, few came from researchers with whom he had previously collaborated. Although he did not overtly crave awards, he must have noted how few of the elite scientific societies honored him. “Jonas received a lot of recognition from the public,” Darrell observed, “which was very gratifying. He did not receive similar kinds of recognition from his peers, which is for anybody a hurtful kind of experience.”

Some scientists considered his behavior—posing with movie stars, giving television interviews—unbefitting a prominent researcher. “He had become too public for some people,” Friedman said. Several resented Salk’s favored position with O’Connor. Others thought the sensationalism surrounding the polio vaccine had debased medical science, and they blamed Salk. “He was the public’s darling,” Friedman said, “but he was a pariah of sorts in the scientific community.” He did win the Albert Lasker Award, which recognizes the nation’s most accomplished scientists. When a friend sent his regards, Salk replied, “It is still nice to be recognized by one’s colleagues even if one may have caused discomfort or disturbance, unintentionally and unwittingly.”

Several researchers thought Salk deserved the Nobel Prize. Much of the public thought he already had been awarded this prestigious scientific award. In his 1895 will, wealthy industrialist Alfred Nobel stipulated that a substantial portion of his capital should be used to set up a fund at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to award yearly prizes in five areas “to those who during the preceding year have done the greatest benefit to mankind.” He further indicated the award in physiology or medicine should be given for the most important discovery. Although nominated several times, Salk never received this most coveted prize. Many have speculated that Salk was denied the Nobel Prize because his was not a “discovery” in the true scientific sense. Others contend that politics played a major role. The details of his nominations were revealed after his death by the permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, who obtained permission to access the previously closed archives according to the fifty-year secrecy rule.

Each year a five-member committee sought nominations from select individuals, reviewed their accomplishments, and proposed a candidate to the fifty members of the Nobel Assembly for the final decision. Sven Gard, professor of virology at Stockholm’s Karolina Institute and one of the five members of the Nobel Committee, had a major influence over the selection process during the 1950s and 1960s. He called John Enders’s discovery “the most important in the whole history of virology.” In his 1955 evaluation of Salk’s nomination, Gard wrote that although the field trial results had been compiled, a complete report was not yet available; he proposed Salk’s work be subjected to “exhaustive analysis” first. In his review a year later, he wrote that Salk’s most important contribution was the demonstration that inactivated poliovirus vaccine conferred immunity, which he considered “nothing new.” Furthermore, Salk had “exploited discoveries made by others.” In his most damning statement, Gard said he had not been able to reproduce Salk’s inactivation data himself, and rigid adherence to his hypothesis had likely been responsible for the accidents associated with the mass immunizations (i.e., the Cutter incident). He concluded Salk’s work on the polio vaccine was not “prize-worthy.”

Salk likely did anticipate an invitation to join the National Academy of Sciences, the elite society of investigators established by President Lincoln in 1863. The academy elects members “in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research,” although there are no specific guidelines as to what constitutes “original.” Membership represents one of the highest honors bestowed upon a scientist. Almost every researcher who received the Lasker Award has been inducted into the academy. But no invitation was forthcoming for Salk. It remains unclear why this was the case, as election proceedings are never made public, and strict secrecy is maintained throughout the academic community. Members submit nominations for new inductees, after which five membership committees prepare a rank list of nominees to be considered. “A vigorous partisan or opponent on the class membership committee,” a science writer learned from one of the academy’s presidents, “can mean the difference between an individual’s eventual election or defeat.” It may have been at this stage that Salk’s nomination was checked. After a mail ballot is sent to all members, a formal vote is taken at the annual meeting to elect new members. Only members of the academy can be present. Names of newly elected members are flashed up on a screen, and the president asks if anyone has reason to oppose a candidate.

Salk’s election could have been blocked for a number of reasons. Some said his work did not merit induction into the academy because it represented a technical piece of work, lacking scientific creativity. “Salk was a kitchen chemist,” academy member Albert Sabin had sniped. “He never had an original idea in his life....You could go into the kitchen and do what he did.” And most academy virologists believed only a live vaccine could impart lifelong immunity. In addition, several blamed Salk for the Cutter incident. Others felt differently. “The real reasons for refusal,” historian Aaron Klein wrote, “were the press conferences, radio and TV appearances, the Life magazine spreads, the mad scenes at Ann Arbor...the outpouring of public adoration and all the other violations of the scientists’ unofficial code of behavior.” “I think people were jealous of his success,” academy member Paul Stumpf concluded. Whatever the reason—failure to contribute original science, behavior unbecoming an academician, or jealousy, Salk was blackballed.

Salk must have anticipated election every February, only to be disappointed. “He was hurt,” Pitt colleague Campbell Moses recalled, “but he wasn’t shocked.” He knew his relationship with the scientific community—uneasy to begin with—had changed in ways he had never expected. Nonetheless, Salk stood behind his belief that scientists should reach out to the public about issues that affected their health. He had dared to step out from behind the walls of academia and communicate with the common man. He tried to dismiss the ostracism that followed. “It is not the awards made by men that give us the greatest reason for doing,”he told Mary Lasker. Later in life he was less generous.Speaking of Ann Arbor, he reflected: “I was neither a politician nor a performer. Those remarks were simply made by colleagues who at that time were reacting as is perfectly natural in professional circles, particularly in the field of science where the coin of the realm is recognition. I was being recognized; they were not.”

Although Salk tried many times to share the credit, the public and the media had made him the icon for polio prevention. With the introduction of the vaccine came a wave of celebrity accorded few scientists in the history of medicine. Though Salk was undeniably ambitious, his desire had been to accomplish something great, not necessarily to be someone great. And while other scientists may have blamed him, the attention was not primarily of Salk’s own choosing. “He was embarrassed by his fame,” Professor Moses maintained.

Nevertheless, historians debate the level of Salk’s humility and naiveté. “Salk was very private, very shy,” argued John Troan. “He dealt with us because he had to, not because he wanted to. He’d much rather have been left alone.” Historian David Oshinsky disagreed. “Salk, in truth, was more than an innocent bystander,” he contended. “One of his great gifts was a knack for putting himself forward in a manner that made him seem genuinely indifferent to his fame, a reluctant celebrity, embarrassed by the accolades, oblivious to the rewards.” Perhaps most reliable are the observations of his longtime secretary, Lorraine Friedman, who had watched the drama unfold close-up. “He wasn’t looking for fame,” she maintained in an interview months before she died.“It cost him an awful lot personally. Many in the scientific community just didn’t believe he was the innocent he claimed to be.” At one point, Salk had confided in Friedman, “I wish this had never happened to me.”

Excerpted from "Jonas Salk: A Life" by Charlotte Jacobs. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2015 by Charlotte Jacobs. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. 

By Charlotte Jacobs

MORE FROM Charlotte Jacobs

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Jonas Salk Nobel Prize Polio