Jonas Edward Salk, the legendary immunologist who earned the undying admiration of the American people but the scorn of his scientific peers with his dramatic discovery of the first polio vaccine, died Friday of congestive heart failure. He was 80.
Although Salk had a history of heart trouble, his death was unexpected. Last October he participated in 80th birthday celebrations that attracted hundreds of people and ranged from Westwood to La Jolla.
He was taken by ambulance Friday morning from his La Jolla home to the Green Hospital of Scripps Clinic, and he died in the afternoon, according to officials at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the La Jolla research institute he founded.
Salk spent the final years of his life trying to develop a vaccine for AIDS--a project he did not begin until he was in his 70s--and was immersed in that effort until his death. “He was crisp, and bright, and wonderful as always,” said Dr. Alexandra Levine of USC, who was a partner in Salk’s AIDS research and last spoke with him a week ago. “He was very much vigorous and alive.”
In an interview that followed Salk’s death, Wylie Veale, chairman of the faculty at the Salk Institute, said he had talked to him just a few days ago and “as always, he was exuding a sense of wonderment.”
‘Freedom From Fear’
Salk was a hero to an entire generation, a household name in his day. Presidents praised him. Fans wrote him letters from far-flung corners of the world. Schoolchildren sent him thank-you notes for including them in the tests of his polio vaccine, which virtually wiped out the disease. Parents never forgot the precious gift he gave them; everywhere he went, for as long as he lived, they stopped him to bestow their praise for freeing them from the fear of polio, the most dreaded scourge of its time.
“Freedom from fear,” Salk told The Times in 1993 in a rare interview. “That’s the most powerful of all emotions. I’ll always remember Franklin Roosevelt [a polio victim] saying, ‘There is nothing to fear but fear itself.’ I sure learned how important freeing people from fear would be.”
Salk was just past 40 when the polio vaccine he developed was approved in 1955, and he never came back with an encore quite as compelling. But he never stopped trying. After “the polio days,” as he called them, he founded the Salk Institute, and it became one of the world’s most respected research centers. Then, at a time when it would have been easy for him to retire, he sought to conquer an adversary even more daunting than polio: AIDS.
“He was truly one of the great figures in American medicine in the area of vaccinology,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top AIDS expert, said Friday. “His contributions have been substantial and it is extraordinary that he continued to make substantial contributions literally until the day of his death, which is the way I think he would have wanted it.”
Paradoxically, though, Salk was as much criticized as he was admired.
Having become famous overnight for the polio vaccine, he was summarily shunned by his fellow scientists for the publicity he received. In a field occupied by people with long memories, many never forgave Salk. Nor did he ever attain the highest honor bestowed on scientists, the Nobel Prize.
Indeed, decades after his polio discovery, Salk was ridiculed by other scientists for his work on the experimental AIDS vaccine. His idea was unconventional, to say the least. He sought to boost the immune systems of those who are already infected with the human immunodeficiency virus--as opposed to traditional vaccines, which prevent infection altogether. Critics said the notion was preposterous, and they complained that Salk’s methods were hopelessly outdated. Ultimately, though, the concept took hold. Salk was credited with changing scientific thinking about AIDS, and other scientists began pursuing his leads.
While the results of tests of Salk’s AIDS vaccine have been disappointing to most experts, the Food and Drug Administration recently decided to allow Salk to push forward with large-scale clinical trials in the hopes that they will yield more encouraging data. Those studies will continue despite Salk’s death, according to the Immune Response Corp., the Carlsbad company that is producing the vaccine.
A Maverick of Science
Ever the maverick, Salk paid his detractors little heed. In AIDS as in polio, as in the administration of his institute, he forged ahead single-mindedly, blind to controversy, confident that if he worked hard enough and long enough, he would one day succeed.
“I follow my own drummer,” he said two years ago. Of his AIDS research, he added: “I know that there are those that are waiting for failure. But my answer to that is there is no such thing as failure. You can only fail if you stop too soon.”
This was vintage Salk--stubborn, independent, determined to do things his own way. Renato Dulbecco, the Nobel laureate who once served as president of the Salk Institute, recalled that Salk had been compared to a fighter pilot--a description Dulbecco said was apt:
“He will avoid this danger, avoid that, and he finally comes back and gets his enemy,” Dulbecco said. “He never gives up. Never.”
Dulbecco’s words were as true of Salk in science as they were in his other passion: the La Jolla institute. Set on the spectacular cliffs of Torrey Pines Mesa, overlooking the Pacific, “the Salk” is one of the world’s premier basic research facilities; it has been compared to the Pasteur Institute in Paris and the Weizmann Institute in Israel.
The story of its building is local legend--how Salk, ever the exacting taskmaster, teamed up with renowned architect Louis I. Kahn to design the facility, at one point insisting that all the plans be discarded and the entire project be redesigned from scratch.
The result was an architectural masterpiece, hailed as one of the 20th Century’s greatest buildings. In La Jolla, the institute quickly became a beloved local landmark. But three decades after it opened, Salk enraged local residents--as well as lovers of architecture--with controversial plans to expand the facility. The plans required that a eucalyptus grove be razed; critics, including Kahn’s widow and daughter, said the grove was integral to the design. For a time, the project was put on hold.
But in the end, Salk got his way. The eucalyptus trees came down, and the addition went up.
Salk was a familiar sight in La Jolla. He cut a small, elegant figure in his later years, with wisps of white hair brushed back from his forehead, curling at the nape of his neck. By this time, Salk had traded in his white lab coat for silk jogging suits. Often, he and his second wife, Francoise Gilot (the former mistress of artist Pablo Picasso and a well-known artist in her own right) were seen strolling arm and arm along the beach.
He dabbled in philosophy as he grew older, writing several books, among them one called “The Survival of the Wisest.” Salk had a clever way with words, and conversations with him tended to be sprinkled with witticisms.
“Do you exercise?” Dr. Dean Ornish, the well-known health expert, once asked him.
“I exercise restraint,” Salk blithely replied.
Brilliant and impatient, ambitious and irascible, Salk was as much a celebrity as he was a legend. And like many celebrities, he spent much of his life trying to escape the spotlight. When news of the polio vaccine broke, Hollywood producers inevitably came calling with offers to make movies about Salk’s life.
Salk, believing such attention would undermine his professional dignity, resisted. “I believe that such pictures are most appropriately made after the scientist is dead,” he said at one point. “I am willing to await my chances of such attention at that time.”
Over the years, he continued to shun most interviews. And when, in 1987, human tests of his AIDS vaccine began at the USC School of Medicine, they were conducted in secret because Salk did not want anyone to know about them.
Still, the attention never subsided; story after story and indeed whole books were written about the man Esquire magazine once dubbed “the doctor-benefactor of our times.” As one fellow scientist once said of Salk: “He’s like a rock star. He can’t get any peace.”
Despite the glory he received, Salk never achieved the top prizes bestowed to scientists. Although some said he desperately wanted a Nobel, the only Nobel ever to be awarded for polio research went to John Enders, a Harvard scientist who discovered how to grow polio virus in test tubes--a monumental discovery that cleared a path for Salk to develop his vaccine.
Nor did Salk belong to the National Academy of Sciences, the nation’s most prestigious and elite scientific club; the other members never voted him in. Ironically, many of the scientists at the Salk Institute were academy members and Nobel laureates.
“I couldn’t possibly have become a member of this institute,” Salk was once quoted as saying, “if I hadn’t founded it myself.”
Emblematic of Salk’s strained relations with other scientists was his lifelong battle with Dr. Albert Sabin, whose own polio vaccine--administered orally on a sugar cube--eventually supplanted the Salk injection. The two aging scientists waged a bitter war of words that ended only with Sabin’s death in 1993.
“It was pure kitchen chemistry,” Sabin once said of Salk’s vaccine. “Salk didn’t discover anything.”
Yet even in the face of such snippiness, science could not ignore Salk. Other researchers always listened when he spoke. And although his contemporaries often ridiculed him, many younger researchers, particularly those working with vaccines, regarded Salk as an elder statesman, often seeking his advice.
When, for instance, Dr. Robert C. Gallo, the noted AIDS researcher who shares credit with French scientists for discovering HIV, was exploring the possibilities for an AIDS vaccine in 1986, he traveled to La Jolla to solicit Salk’s opinions--even though the two had never met. It was the meeting with Gallo, Salk later said, that got him interested in pursuing his own AIDS vaccine.
While some complained he was arrogant, those who knew Salk well were struck by his soft-spoken, gentle nature. Levine, the USC AIDS researcher, recalled her first meeting with Salk, which occurred shortly after her mother died.
“He came right up to me--I’ll never forget it--and just kissed me and said he understood what had happened,” she said. “I was totally taken with him. I was taken by his humaneness, by his warmth.”
Levine was so enamored of Salk that after her conversations with the legendary scientist she began jotting down his pearls of wisdom on yellow self-sticking notes, which are now on her USC office wall. One of the notes quotes Salk’s feelings about his AIDS research. “They’ll [fellow scientists] never forgive us for being right,” it says.
A Career in Research
Born in New York City, Salk was the eldest son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents. His family lived in a tenement at 106th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan; his father worked in New York’s garment district.
Although he grew up to become a doctor, receiving his medical degree from New York University on June 8, 1939, Salk never intended to practice medicine. He was interested in biology and chemistry, and he wanted to do research.
In 1942, after a two-year internship at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, Salk went to the University of Michigan to join the laboratory of one of his mentors at NYU, Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. There, Salk spent six years researching the influenza virus and experimenting with different flu vaccines. It was in Francis’ laboratory that Salk developed the techniques he later used to help conquer polio.
In 1947, Salk--yearning for a laboratory of his own--moved to the University of Pittsburgh. A year later, he joined with the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis--now known as the March of Dimes--which had put together a committee of scientists to identify and type different strains of the polio virus.
At the time, polio was a terrifying plague--in many ways far more terrifying than AIDS is today. Like the common cold, it is transmitted hand-to-mouth. It struck randomly, afflicting children in particular. Many of its victims died or were left paralyzed; at the height of the polio epidemic, in the early 1950s, the disease killed or crippled 40,000 Americans each year. So fearsome was this virus that in summertime--"polio season"--people slept with the windows shut tight for fear of polio germs.
In this atmosphere of panic, the pressure to find a cure was intense. In 1948, when Enders, the Harvard scientist, figured out how to grow polio virus in test tubes, Salk saw immense possibilities. The ability to mass-produce the virus, he knew, meant scientists would finally be able to develop a polio vaccine. He quickly equipped his laboratory to do just that.
At the time, the standard formula for developing a vaccine was the so-called “live-attenuated” method--a tried-and-true technique invented by the legendary French biochemist Louis Pasteur. The method used a weakened form of the live virus that the vaccine was intended to combat; the idea was to trigger an immune response by producing a tiny infection inside the body, albeit one that was too weak to cause disease.
Salk, however, believed that the immune system could be triggered without such an infection. His idea was to deactivate the virus--at first he used ultraviolet light, and later formaldehyde--to produce a so-called killed virus vaccine.
Salk thought virus vaccines that had been killed would be safer because there was no chance that the virus could revert to a deadly form inside the body. He had tried this method with influenza and wanted to try it with polio. Decades later, he would try it again--with AIDS.
Within three years of Enders’ discovery, Salk was conducting preliminary safety tests of his polio vaccine on residents of the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children near Pittsburgh. One famous photograph shows Salk injecting the vaccine into his son, Jonathon, while Salk’s first wife, Donna, looks on. (The Salks had three sons--Peter, Darrell and Jonathon; all grew up to be doctors.)
An Instant Hero
By 1954, nationwide field trials of what would later be named the “Salk vaccine” were under way, with financial backing from the March of Dimes. The subjects were schoolchildren--the so-called Polio Pioneers--many of whom fondly remember their participation in the trials to this day.
It was a remarkable experiment that would probably not be permitted by today’s safety-conscious bureaucracy. But even then, the Salk vaccine trials drew complaints, mostly from other scientists--Sabin among them--who said that Salk and the March of Dimes were moving much too quickly.
But Salk pressed on, and on April 12, 1955, at 10:20 a.m., the news was released to the world through a bulletin that clacked over the Associated Press wire: “The Salk polio vaccine is safe, effective and potent, it was announced today.”
Salk became an instant hero. That night, he was interviewed by the journalist Edward R. Murrow in a much-watched and often-quoted live broadcast of Murrow’s program, “See It Now.”
“Who owns the patent on this vaccine?” Murrow asked.
“Well,” Salk replied, “the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
Indeed, Salk never made a penny from his vaccine. But the remark, and the publicity that surrounded it, earned him the enmity of his scientific peers. In 1993, reflecting on how his life had changed since then, he recalled the meeting with Murrow:
“What comes to mind,” he said, “is something that Edward R. Murrow said to me on the evening of April 12, 1955, which is quoted from time to time. He said: ‘Young man, a great tragedy has just befallen you. You have lost your anonymity.’ Well, you can see the nature of the tragedy. I’ve become a celebrity. That’s contrary to what a person in the field of science is supposed to be.”
By 1961, the Salk polio vaccine had reduced the incidence of polio by as much as 95%, preventing an estimated 300,000 cases. The same year, the federal government licensed production of a traditional live-virus vaccine developed by Sabin. Sabin’s oral vaccine quickly replaced the Salk injection, and is the one in use today.
(Regardless of the scientists’ disputes, the World Health Organization last year declared that polio had been eradicated in the Western Hemisphere.)
By the time the Sabin vaccine was licensed, Salk had moved to La Jolla. In 1962, funded largely with March of Dimes money, he broke ground on the Salk Institute.
Salk envisioned the institute as a place where scientists could pursue their interests in an unfettered atmosphere of beauty and harmony. “A cathedral to science,” he once called it. He maintained a laboratory there until 1984, and was prepared to spend his final years in quiet contemplation, writing, reading and guiding the institute.
But the lure of attacking--and perhaps conquering--a problem as complex as AIDS proved too much for the immunologist to resist. While some saw him, in the words of one of his colleagues, as “the old man . . . trying to do it again,” Salk said simply that he saw a line of research that was not being pursued by anyone else, and decided that if it was to be done he would have to do it himself.
“I’ve learned enough in my life,” he explained, “to know that I must go my own way.”
Times staff writer Tony Perry contributed from San Diego.
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