The Doctor Who Ended a Plague

Article excerpt

The mixed blessings of modern medicine are one of the cliches of our time. Its contributions are ambiguous because medicine's life-prolonging and healing miracles often seem to generate new agonies for every old one they stamp out; and some are as grim as the original.

But one medical stride in my lifetime made an unambiguous difference in my place and time: the polio vaccine, whose discoverer, Dr. Jonas Salk, died last week at 80.

When I was a boy in North Carolina in the 1940s and early 1950s, summer polio epidemics were the equivalent, almost, of the great plagues of medieval Europe. With the toll it took on young life and limb, polio was so dreadful that it meant confinement. You stayed in your neighborhood all summer - no movies, no swimming, no baseball games, no visitors. (The only bright spot was that it meant no Sunday school either.) Until the contagion subsided, the biweekly visit to the barber was the limit of our contact with the outside world.

That is the measure of the menace as I recall it - special polio hospitals, grim and pathetic places equipped with iron lungs and special heat compress devices, filled to overflowing, mostly with very young children. Several schoolmates had survived polio, which killed six of every hundred it attacked. The lucky ones walked with a limp or had some other small impairment. The unlucky ones needed crutches; the very unlucky were no longer with us.

Then, the polio plague disappeared as if by magic. Salk's vaccine was declared safe and effective in 1955, three years after a great epidemic had afflicted 58,000 nationally. Within little more than a decade polio had been wiped out.

Salk was not lacking in self-confidence, but he was careful to give credit to the virologists who had developed the research methods he made use of. His bitter rival, Albert Sabin, patronized Salk's work as "kitchen chemistry" and implied that almost any researcher could have done it. But the same may be said of many signal achievements in medicine and science, which are rarely if ever singlehanded work. But it is the discoverers who consummate the discovery - the Pasteurs and Flemings and Salks - who are remembered. …