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What It Takes: Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk
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What It Takes: Jonas Salk
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00:00:02 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:00:08 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:00:14 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:00:19 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:00:32 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:00:35 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:00:40 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:00:52 ALICE WINKLER: This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement's recorded collection, a tremendous archive of intimate, thoughtful conversations with people who have changed the world. I'm Alice Winkler. The Academy of Achievement is based in Washington, D.C., and it was founded to inspire students by bringing them together with leaders in every field, but now, with this podcast, you also get to hear the stories and insights of these remarkable human beings, people like Dr. Jonas Salk.

00:01:33 But let's start a little farther back before the world learned his name.

00:01:38 MALE VOICE: This year, the enemy, poliomyelitis, struck with such impact and fury that it shook the entire nation. It spread its crypting tentacles from ocean to ocean and border to border. There has been no escape, no immunity. It has closed the gates on normal childhood. It has swept our beaches, stilled our boats, and emptied our pots, for this is epidemic.

00:02:04 ALICE WINKLER: In the 1940s and early '50s, summer was terrifying. The polio virus was most contagious during the hot months and struck tens of thousands of children every year, almost 60,000 in 1952 alone. It left wasted muscles, paralysis, and sometimes death, in its wake. If your child caught the virus, she might end up lying in an "iron lung" in a hospital lined up with rows and rows of other children in iron lungs, their heads all jutting out from the giant metal barrels, unable to move at all, but then finally, in 1955, a reprieve.

00:02:49 NEWSCASTER: CBS News presents a special report. The Salk polio vaccine is a success. The vaccine works.

00:02:58 ALICE WINKLER: The country and the whole world heaved a sigh of relief. Poliomyelitis, or polio, had come in menacing waves for hundreds, and possibly thousands, of years. Overnight, Dr. Jonas Salk became an unlikely celebrity, a national hero in a lab coat.

00:03:18 JONAS SALK: There was a great rejoicing, obviously, because of the freedom from fear, or the relief. It was not unlike the ending of a war, if you like. People meet me, even now, remembering exactly the moment when this announcement was made. I felt myself very much like someone in the eye of the hurricane because of all this swirling was going on around me.

00:03:45 And it was at that moment that everything changed, and it was Edward R. Murrow, the journalist and newscaster, who said to me that evening, "You had a great — " he said, "Young man, a great tragedy has just befallen you." I said, "What's that, Ed?" And he said, "You've just lost your anonymity." And it was then that I became looked upon as a public figure, and I had to fight and struggle to continue on with my work.

00:04:17 ALICE WINKLER: The Academy of Achievement invited Jonas Salk to sit for an interview in 1991 to record his reflections on a remarkable life. Salk was then 77 years old. The first question was whether he’d always wanted to be a doctor.

00:04:35 JONAS SALK: No, as a child I had in mind to study law, but my mother didn't think I'd make a very good lawyer. Her reasons were that I couldn’t really win an argument with her.

00:04:47 ALICE WINKLER: Thank you, Mrs. Salk. Without you, Jonas might have followed his interest in the law all the way to the halls of Congress, where he actually dreamed of serving, and then where would we be?

00:04:59 JONAS SALK: My mother had no schooling. She came to this country from Russia in 1901. She immediately, as a young girl, began to work and would help to support the family. She was very ambitious, in a sense, for her children. She wanted her children to have more than she had, so that she lived her life and invested her life to live through her children.

00:05:25 I was the eldest of three sons, and the favorite, and the one who had all of her attention. So my second — middle — brother was born when I was about five years old, and my youngest brother when I was about twelve, and she wanted to be sure that we all were going to advance in the world, and therefore we were encouraged in our studies and overly protected in many ways.

00:05:57 My father was a designer of ladies’ neckwear, blouses and things of that kind. He was a more artistic person, and he was in the — a designer in the garment industries, and he had not quite graduated from elementary school, so that we were not brought up in a family which was already cultured. And the — my mother's children and father's children were the first of their respective generations that went on to college.

00:06:30 So there was something special in the household, but there weren't any role models in my life in that sense.

00:06:38 ALICE WINKLER: Jonas Salk, without role models, and deterred by his mother from pursuing a legal career, settled for medicine, but from the start, he never intended to practice medicine. Instead, he wanted to work as a research scientist. Looking back on it, Salk said, whether he’d gone into law or medicine, his ambition was the same, to work in the service of humankind. He knew he wouldn't be satisfied helping people just on a one-to-one basis.

00:07:07 When journalist Gail Eichenthal, who conducted this interview, asked Dr. Salk whether his humanitarian spirit was fostered by his parents, he demurred.

00:07:17 JONAS SALK: Well, I think that this is part of our nature and part of an ancestral heritage. That's how we got to be where we are, through people who performed or functioned that way or had that drive or desire and ambition, which I look upon as a natural phenomenon. You know, born with that instinct, if you'd like. And then, in the course of life, if the opportunities present themselves and if there is either encouragement, or even if there's not encouragement, you overcome the resistances to any opposition, if that's the kind of person that you are.

00:08:01 Some people are constructive, if you'd like. Others are destructive, and it's necessary merely to have enough and make positive contributions to deal with, overcome, and help solve the problems of each age.

00:08:18 GAIL EICHENTHAL: When did you first have a vision of what you might accomplish in the world, of the exact field that you would devote yourself to?

00:08:26 JONAS SALK: You never have an idea of what you might accomplish. All that you do is you pursue a question and see where it leads. The first moment that I had — that a question occurred to me that did influence my future career occurred in my second year at medical school.

00:08:50 ALICE WINKLER: One day, as he sat in a lecture hall, Jonas Salk's professor explained that it was possible to immunize against diphtheria and tetanus, both bacterial infections, by chemically altering the bacterial toxins that cause the illnesses. In the very next lecture, the professor taught that for viral diseases, chemically treated virus wouldn’t do the trick. You'd have to actually experience the infection to develop immunity.

00:09:20 JONAS SALK: Well, somehow that struck me that both statements couldn’t be true, and I asked why this was so, and the answer that was given, there was no satisfactory answer. Perhaps it had been tried and had not succeeded, and I think that that, in fact, was true.

00:09:39 ALICE WINKLER: The doubts he had about his professor’s statement had a chance to fester for quite some time because World War II broke out, and Salk, by then at the University of Michigan on a fellowship, spent six years working with his mentor to find a vaccine against the flu. If you think back on your history, the influenza pandemic that broke out during World War I killed about three times as many people worldwide as died in the war itself.

00:10:09 Forty-three thousand U.S. soldiers serving in the Great War died of flu. So when World War II started, Salk and his colleagues received funding from the military to come up with a flu vaccine that would protect the troops, and, in fact, they succeeded. It was a killed virus. In other words, a chemically deactivated one. Salk took the lessons from that success, and he set his sights on polio. Why did he focus so intently on the killed virus, when others, like his legendary competitor Albert Sabin, were dead set on trying to develop a live virus?

00:10:49 JONAS SALK: It was very simple. Before the work on influenza, the effective vaccines were those made with what we call attenuated, or so-called weakened, viruses. They have the capacity to infect, cause serious reactions, and sometimes fatal reactions. But the principle that I tried to establish was that it was not necessary to run the risk, and so it seemed to me the safer and more certain way to proceed.

00:11:26 That if we could inactivate the virus, that we could move onto a vaccine very quickly, whereas if you worked only with weakened virus, you'd have to demonstrate its safety eventually. So that was the reasoning.

00:11:37 GAIL EICHENTHAL: You got quite a bit of flak for that approach because no one had done it before, and you were kind of going out on a limb here.

00:11:45 JONAS SALK: I wasn't going out on a limb, and the flak to which you refer is what taught me very early on not only about the human side of nature but about the human side of science. I soon discovered that there are three stages of truth. First is that it can't be true, and that's what they said. You couldn’t immunize against polio with a killed virus vaccine. Second phase, they say, "Well, if it's true, it's not very important."

00:12:11 And the third stage is, "Well, we've known it all along." And so, what you are describing is the process that you have to go through when you come up with an idea that has not yet been tried or tested. And so I — while it is true that this involves personalities, it also involves different ways of seeing, and it was not a matter of a popularity contest. It was not a matter of anything other than that my curiosity drove me to find out whether it could work or not.

00:12:48 ALICE WINKLER: Time for a little backstory to fill you in on some tension in the scientific world you might be detecting. Actually, it’s a long and extremely fascinating backstory worth a read. But, briefly, the other vaccine researchers who were working on the live vaccine — Albert Sabin most famous among them — believed that their approach would result in a vaccine that would provide a lifetime of immunity in a single oral dose — a tiny, syrupy drop — and that it would therefore have a better chance of eradicating the disease worldwide.

00:13:25 Jonas Salk’s killed vaccine required an injection and several booster shots over years, but Salk, as he just said, believed it was safer and could be developed more quickly. It was a genuine scientific dispute, with a lot of research money at stake. The March of Dimes, which began as a massively successful fundraising campaign to end polio, chose to back Salk’s research.

00:13:55 Here’s a TV clip from 1954 with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz making a pitch for the March of Dimes.

00:14:02 LUCILLE BALL: You know, every child has a right to their health and happiness.

00:14:06 DESI ARNAZ: That's right, but there are an awful lot of children that don't even have that.

00:14:11 LUCILLE BALL: Yes, Desi, and there are a lot of parents whose children are healthy and happy now, who live in fear. I know I do. The fear, my friends, is polio, infantile paralysis.

00:14:23 DESI ARNAZ: Polio is no respecter of people. The rich, the poor, the strong, the weak. No one is immune.

00:14:32 LUCILLE BALL: But soon, perhaps within a year, there may be a vaccine, a vaccine available to all that may be the answer.

00:14:40 DESI ARNAZ: That's right. There is a trial vaccine now being tested. It has been tested successfully on 700 people, but now the vital large-scale tests must be conducted. Hundreds of thousands of people will be inoculated starting next month.

00:14:57 LUCILLE BALL: Vaccines and tests cost a great deal of money. Now here is your chance to help get this test done as quickly as possible. Give every dime and dollar that you can spare to the 1954 March of Dimes.

00:15:11 ALICE WINKLER: Salk’s research did bring a vaccine to market the following year. Albert Sabin’s vaccine didn’t become available for another seven, but it did, in fact, win out over the Salk vaccine for the next four decades. Salk’s, though, is more recently back in favor in the United States, so the rivalry continues, in a sense, long after their deaths.

00:15:36 But back in 1955, the issue of who got credit also led to a lot of sore feelings. The work of many other scientists laid the groundwork for Jonas Salk’s vaccine, as is often the case in research, but many felt bitter about Salk’s celebrity status. He was embraced by the media and by the public as the conquering hero who'd saved the world from the enemy polio’s clutches.

00:16:04 Salk didn’t create the media circus, but still, his spot in the limelight was seen as kind of untoward by his peers. Most vocal, and probably most damning, was his rival, Albert Sabin, who was quoted as saying, "Salk was a kitchen chemist. He never had an original idea in his life." Didn't Jonas Salk feel hurt by the disdain or the jealousy of some of his colleagues?

00:16:31 JONAS SALK: Oh, I just plowed on. Hurt is one thing. Being deterred is another thing, and so, while we prefer to have an open path, one thing you learn in life is that there's no such thing as a free lunch. There's no way that everybody's going to agree, and particularly if you go against the mainstream.

00:16:55 And since everyone at that time had already been — had their minds set on how they thought the problem ought to be dealt with, whether it was influenza or poliomyelitis, or now even the work on AIDS, that's a characteristic of how what I like to call the evolutionary process proceeds. What comes to mind now is I often think of this, it's like a seagull syndrome. I call it the seagull syndrome.

00:17:21 When I walk on the beach, I see the seagulls going out and getting a fish or a piece of bread on the beach, and then the others go after him, that one, rather than go get their own.

00:17:31 GAIL EICHENTHAL: It's unnerving to find that scientists who seem to be bent on helping mankind tend to get into these very bitter sort of rivalries.

00:17:43 JONAS SALK: You see, there's — the contradiction is in your assertion. You say scientists who are — have a bent to help mankind. That's not what their objective is. If that was their objective, they might approach it somewhat differently, and so you must — you see, you project your own perception of what a scientist is like or what he should do, what you'd expect him to do.

00:18:10 But you soon find out that that's not necessarily the case, and that the motivation that drives us to do what we do is different in each of us. And so we begin to see that there are two aspects to our pursuits: one is the pursuit of our curiosity; the other is how other people react to that, and you have to deal with both.

00:18:38 ALICE WINKLER: Jonas Salk never won the esteem of some of those colleagues. He never won the Nobel Prize, either, nor did the National Academy of Sciences even invite him to join, a harsh snub. But as he told Gail Eichenthal in this interview, he’d spent much of his life thinking, observing, and reflecting about science and about human nature, and he’d come to the conclusion that obstacles, failures, and even plain old disappointments are no cause for regret.

00:19:10 JONAS SALK: In fact, my entering the field that led to work in vaccines came about as a result of my being denied an opportunity to work in another laboratory or at another institution. And that's when I began to recognize that there are two great tragedies in life. One is to not get what you want. The other's to get what you want. And if I had gotten what I'd wanted, it would have been a greater tragedy than my not getting what I wanted, because it allowed me to get something else.

00:19:44 I know how disappointed we all are not to get what we want, but then the question is, should that discourage us and say, well, if not that then nothing?

00:19:56 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Did you ever doubt yourself when you got turned down from these places?

00:20:00 JONAS SALK: I would say evidently not, because I was merely looking for opportunity, and it was not a test of me, and then in many instances — or in some instances, I was aware that there were — or was a tendency toward either favoritism, or there was a tendency toward discrimination, and in some instances anti-Semitism played a role.

00:20:30 And I always realized that that was always a factor. In fact, almost didn't get into medical school because of quotas at that time. And so I was prepared for other eventualities. I was already prepared to go to graduate school to study endocrinology, for example, if I had not gone into medical school. And so it becomes necessary to be prepared for alternative paths. There may be a greater opportunity when something is denied.

00:21:03 ALICE WINKLER: Obviously, alternative paths landed Jonas Salk in some extraordinary places that spared tremendous suffering and countless lives. Not all those paths were the result of rejection. Here's one last story from Dr. Salk about an opportunity he was given as a young medical student.

00:21:23 JONAS SALK: At the end of my first year of medical school, the professor of chemistry, Dr. R. Keith Cannon, tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to come to see him. And I was quite sure that he was going to tell me that I was failing and give me some bad news, instead of which he offered me an opportunity to drop out for a year and work with him, during which time I had my first experience in research and also as a student teacher, so to speak.

00:21:55 And since my desire from the time I entered medical school was to enter into research and to do the scientific research, that was the break that I seized upon. It was a difficult decision to make because I would have had to leave my class, be alone, and, in a sense, be exceptional for that year, and then return to another class that I was participating in teaching.

00:22:30 Nevertheless, I had the courage to do so. Well, I didn’t get very much work done in that sense. It was not an accomplished year, but it was the year that initiated a process. That was what was important. It was not the product of that year but the initiation of a process, setting me on a path, and it's important to recognize that sometimes at a turning point, what's important is to let go of where you have been going, or where you are, to explore a new direction.

00:23:06 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Taking a risk in that sense really paid off.

00:23:09 JONAS SALK: Risks always pay off. You learn what to do or what not to do. And those who don't take risks, you would never know. Therefore, not infrequently, I’d go into the laboratory, and people would say, "Something didn't work," and I said, "Great," and "We've made a great discovery." So my attitude is not one of pitfalls, and so the — this idealized notion that — of discovery just suddenly falling into your lap — it's recognizing something that you might not have anticipated.

00:23:47 Basically it's entering into a dialogue with nature, and if you see it that way then it becomes a process, not a series of events.

00:24:02 ALICE WINKLER: That’s Jonas Salk, creator of the first polio vaccine. Dr. Salk went on to establish an institute for innovative scientific research that bears his name, and he spent the last years of his life searching for a vaccine against AIDS. Jonas Salk died in 1995, four years after he recorded this conversation for the Academy of Achievement. There’s a longer version of the interview and more information available about Dr. Salk at

00:24:33 When you have time for the stories and insights of another pioneer, be sure to come back. I’m Alice Winkler, and this is What It Takes. See you next time.

00:24:54 ALICE WINKLER: Many thanks to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation for funding What It Takes.

What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.