Jonas Salk, the man who cured polio, "would be shocked" by anti-vaxxers, experts say

Many people once lined up joyously to receive vaccines. What changed?

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published November 1, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

A painting depicting Dr Jonas Salk in his lab working on the Polio vaccine in 1955 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Illustration by Ed Vebell/Getty Images)
A painting depicting Dr Jonas Salk in his lab working on the Polio vaccine in 1955 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Illustration by Ed Vebell/Getty Images)

Polio is a highly infectious viral disease that invades the nervous system and can trigger total paralysis in a matter of hours. It mainly targets children under age 5, and at one time disabled and killed thousands of American children every year. Today, all that is a distant memory. The World Health Organization recently estimated that, thanks to polio vaccines, "More than 20 million people are able to walk today who would otherwise have been paralyzed. An estimated 1.5 million childhood deaths have been prevented through the systematic administration of vitamin A during polio immunization activities."

That breakthrough was largely the work of Dr. Jonas Salk, the American virologist who developed one of the first polio vaccines. A year before Salk died in 1995, polio was considered eradicated in North and South America and today cases have decreased by 99% globally. There were just six cases reported in 2021.

In 1955, when Salk was close to announcing his vaccine was successful, he famously said he didn't believe it would be right for any individual to patent such an essential drug. After being asked to explain who owned the vaccine, Salk stated that "the people" were the owners, justifying that fact with a famous rhetorical question: "Could you patent the sun?"

It was an iconic moment in the history of public health, particularly in an era when vaccine inequity makes it difficult for millions to receive life-saving inoculations. Perhaps it is even more so in the COVID-19 era, when anti-vaccine ideology has become a badge of identity for millions of conservatives.

"His liberality ended up with him being investigated by [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover at one point."

Yet the talk of Salk's wisdom is more complicated than it may first appear. As Stanford professor and Salk biographer Dr. Charlotte D. Jacobs told Salon by email, Salk's explanation has caused subsequent scholars to mistakenly claim that he personally gave away the polio vaccine — which he never owned in the first place. Salk was acknowledging the work of his many predecessor scientists, as well as expressing his individual belief that such drugs should be widely available. 

Salk's work "was supported by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, better known as the March of Dimes," Jacobs told Salon by email. "Its director, Basil O'Connor, made it clear to all scientists that the foundation prohibited patents for all work performed under its research grants."

At the same time, Salk was a prominent liberal who cared about public health and believed that quality medical care should be widely available. As his son, Dr. Peter Salk of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Public Health, told Salon, there are lessons from his life that clearly apply to present conditions. Salk had no desire to become rich from his work, his son said, a stark contrast to the current era when most new drugs are developed by pharmaceutical companies frequently accused of exploiting public health needspredatory pricing, misleading marketing and deliberately stalling vaccine development to protect corporate profits.

"My father absolutely did not have any interest personally in in the vaccine being patented," Salk told Salon. Even after the March of Dimes hired an attorney to explore patenting the polio vaccine (which was unsuccessful), he said, "the thing that struck me was my father's absolute disinterest in getting together with that patent attorney. It was very rather frustrating for the attorney because my father was completely focused on the work that was in front of him."

There is another lesson in Salk's example — namely, his assumption that the public would almost unanimously welcome vaccines. This may be difficult to believe in our increasingly contentious era, but America in the '50s and '60s had no widespread anti-vaccine movement. Vaccines were viewed as a remarkable innovation that could save millions of lives by preventing potentially deadly diseases. 

Salk "would be shocked" by the rise of the contemporary anti-vaccine movement, said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "He grew up at a time when diphtheria was a routine killer of teenagers and whooping cough would kill 8,000 to 10,000 people a year. Polio would paralyze 30,000 to 35,000 people a year and kill 1,500 people."

Remembering his own 1950s childhood, Offit said that his parents were terrified of polio and that his mother cried with joy when the polio vaccine was announced.

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"My father absolutely just did not have any interest personally in patenting and in the vaccine being patented."

"We saw vaccines for what they were, which were lifesavers," Offit said. "We didn't have this sort of level of distrust and division that we have today."

He cited the "Cutter incident" of 1955 as a "perfect example" of this widespread public trust in science. A private lab that was commissioned to mass-produce copies of Salk's vaccine accidentally sent out versions containing a live polio virus. Roughly 40,000 children developed active cases of polio, at least 200 were permanently paralyzed and 10 died. That disastrous outcome could certainly have shaken public confidence in vaccines — but that's not what happened

The Cutter incident "demonstrated the need for the U.S. government to take a stronger regulatory role in approving new vaccines," Dr. Daniel Wilson, a retired history professor at Muhlenberg College and author of "Living with Polio: The Epidemic and Its Survivors," told Salon in 2021. "It may also have helped move the government to more strongly finance medical and scientific research. Remember, the polio research and trials for the Salk and Sabin vaccines were almost entirely funded by the private philanthropy [of] the March of Dimes."

"I think it was probably the worst biological disaster in this country's history," Offit said, "and it in no sense had shaken the trust that people had in the government and the pharmaceutical industry and vaccine regulation. Not at all. If you looked at the exit interviews from those people who were jurors in the first trials, they trusted the companies.They saw what it was: a process of evolution."

Dr. Peter Salk said his father would be "really puzzled" by the emergence and spread of anti-vaccine ideology. "His whole commitment was protecting the population from infectious diseases," which did not stop him from also caring about "problems confronting humanity that were outside of the realm of infectious disease and physical illness." Peter Salk mentioned the books his father wrote later in life, including "World Population and Human Values: A New Reality" in 1981 and "Anatomy of Reality: Merging of Intuition and Reason" in 1983. "He was absolutely committed to the notion that humanity needs to do something to change their way of thinking and behaving if we're going make it through this transition — the period that we're still struggling with," Peter Salk added.

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He added that in Jonas Salk's final years, he worked on efforts to develop an HIV vaccine. Although that was not successful, Salk said that his father was "deeply engaged in introducing HIV treatment programs in Africa and Asia, highly aware of the inequities and involved in the whole system [of improving] access to medications," and so on. 

"His liberality ended up with him being investigated by [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover at one point," Salk recalled, a note of rueful amusement creeping into his tone. But "they didn't come up with anything."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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