Jonas Salk: A Life

A book by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs –

Review by David Oshinsky in the New York Times –

Nobody could recall a medical press conference quite like this one. On April 12, 1955, families huddled around radios, as if listening to the World Series or a championship fight. Crowds watched on television sets lining department store windows. Work stopped in offices and factories as word spread and tearful celebrations erupted.

“Polio Is Conquered,” the headlines screamed. The vaccine developed by Jonas Salk, a 40-year-old University of Pittsburgh researcher, had been judged safe and effective following the largest public health experiment in our history.

In 1954, the March of Dimes sponsored the Salk vaccine polio trials. More than a million schoolchildren took part, some getting the real vaccine, others a look-alike placebo. Parents frantically pushed their children into line. They didn’t need to be educated about the risks and rewards of the vaccine. The evidence was everywhere: children in leg braces, wheelchairs, iron lungs — and coffins. The Salk trials rank among the great successes of modern medicine, and Jacobs tells the story as well as it’s ever been told. This is science writing at its best.

Surprisingly, Jacobs doesn’t question Salk’s version of his early career as one in which anti-Semitism and political activism played no role. Though Salk angrily denied facing religious discrimination, the record shows otherwise. Among the reasons he attended New York University’s medical school in the 1930s is that it was one of the few places that didn’t have a “Jewish quota,” unlike Harvard, Yale, Columbia or Cornell. (“Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics and take no blacks at all,” was Yale’s mantra at the time.)

Comment by Ken Feltman: I was one of the children in the March of Dimes trials. I knew children who had polio. One died of the disease. Others lived miserable lives. The vaccine seemed at the time to represent hope and a generation’s faith in the wonders of technology.

Another child in my class at school said her parents wanted her to be in the trials because, if the vaccine proved to be effective, Jews might gain more respect. I didn’t understand so I asked my parents. My mother explained, including telling me about the Holocaust of the recent World War II.

She then explained that we – Christians with our roots in Northern Europe –  were privileged in America. Others had a more difficult time.

My mother said never to feel that I was better than anyone else. She told of one ancestor from Wales who arrived in this country in chains. He had done sometime to anger the English and was sent to the colonies as an indentured servant. He spoke no English but, somehow, eventually made his way to Philadelphia. There he found Welsh-speaking settlers and work. Soon he married a woman who spoke Welsh and a few useful English phrases.

My father told me that kings, queens and dukes, as well as the wealthy, seldom emigrate. The United States, he said, was settled by peasants and adventurers who had nothing to lose by trying their luck in a new land. Never forget your background, he said, and always be ready to help other people, no matter where they came from or how they got here. The important thing, he said, was not race, color, religion or what kind of car they drove. The important thing was that they were here. We had that fact in common. That was enough.  

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Known as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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