Jonas Salk: A Life

Jonas Salk: A Life

Jonas Salk: A Life

Jonas Salk: A Life

Synopsis

When a waiting world learned on April 12, 1955, that Jonas Salk had successfully created a vaccine to prevent poliomyelitis, he became a hero overnight. Born in a New York tenement, humble in manner, Salk had all the makings of a twentieth-century icon - a knight in a white coat. In the wake of his achievement, he received a staggering number of awards and honors; for years his name ranked with Gandhi and Churchill on lists of the most revered people. And yet the one group whose adulation he craved - the scientific community - remained ominously silent. "The worst tragedy that could have befallen me was my success," Salk later said. "I knew right away that I was through - cast out." In the first complete biography of Jonas Salk, Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs unravels Salk's story to reveal an unconventional scientist and a misunderstood and vulnerable man. Despite his incredible success in developing the polio vaccine, Salk was ostracized by his fellow scientists, who accused him of failing to give proper credit to other researchers and scorned his taste for media attention. Even before success catapulted him into the limelight, Salk was an inscrutable man disliked by many of his peers. Driven by an intense desire to aid mankind, he was initially oblivious and eventually resigned to the personal cost - as well as the costs suffered by his family and friends. And yet Salk remained, in the eyes of the public, an adored hero. Based on hundreds of personal interviews and unprecedented access to Salk's sealed archives, Jacobs' biography offers the most complete picture of this complicated figure. Salk's story has never been fully told; until now, his role in preventing polio has overshadowed his part in co-developing the first influenza vaccine, his effort to meld the sciences and humanities in the magnificent Salk Institute, and his pioneering work on AIDS. A vivid and intimate portrait, this will become the standard work on the remarkable life of Jonas Salk.

Excerpt

In the summer of 1916, New York’s playgrounds stood empty. No children splashed in public swimming pools; none sold lemonade on the sidewalks. No cats roamed the alleys, peering into garbage cans. Troops of sanitary workers in white uniforms hosed down the city streets. Fathers hurried home from work, fear imprinted on their faces, averting their glances from the tiny wooden caskets lined up outside the tenements. Policemen patrolled the streets. New York was a city under siege.

Poliomyelitis had crept into Brooklyn while the public was busy watching the war unfold in Europe. It smoldered for a while between Henry Street and Seventh Avenue. Health officials barely paid attention, assuming it would soon die out. But it didn’t. When the press began to attach names and faces to the disease, the community became alarmed. Helen Downing, paralyzed just before graduation from Public School no. 134, received her diploma in bed. After five-year-old Frederick Chaplin made his kindergarten’s honor roll, his brother took him to Coney Island. Five days later, he was dead.

Before long, the names and faces gave way to numbers, and they kept escalating. On June 28, Health Commissioner Haven Emerson announced that Brooklyn might be experiencing an epidemic. Although . . .

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