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Stanford doctor-author brings historic figure Jonas Salk to life

Stanford professor emerita Charlotte Jacobs, MD, spent the past decade with the ghost of polio vaccine creator Jonas Salk, MD, the subject of her second biography, Jonas Salk: A Life. She dug through archives, conducted over a hundred interviews and read countless first-hand accounts and period news.

But she still had a difficult time choosing the opening scene for her book, the first written biography of the man hailed as an international hero for his role in ending the polio epidemics that ravaged the world during the first half of the 20th century.

Should she start with start with Salk’s humble beginnings as a child born to poor Jewish immigrants in New York City, dive into the life-saving research that propelled him to fame and antagonized his scientific peers, or begin at the end of his life, when he was striving to regain his prestige by seeking an HIV vaccine?

The choice for Jacobs became clear when, during a dinner at a writers’ residency, she described her book and its subject to her fellow participants. As the mostly younger writers quietly nodded, Jacobs realized they not only didn’t know who Salk was, they had no idea of the scope or severity of the polio epidemics. Jacobs, a child during the 1950’s, has chilling memories of this time.

“It was a fear that hovered over us every summer,” Jacobs recalled, “no matter what you did — eat your vegetables go to church, mind your mother — you could be the crippler’s next victim. And it was mostly children who caught the disease.”

Jacobs begins her book, excerpted in the new issue of Stanford Medicine, with a vivid account of the New York City 1916 outbreak. That year, in New York state alone, 8,900 people were infected, 2,400 died and many of the survivors were paralyzed or crippled.

The book has received numerous positive reviews. While Jacobs is happy with the attention, she is most excited for her audience to learn about the remarkable work that Salk and his team did in developing the vaccine and how the American public, through the March of Dimes, funded and carried out the first vaccine trials.

“This trial was run by volunteers; housewives collected the data,” she said. “Never before, and never again, has the public itself conducted a trial of this magnitude.”

Having read the excerpt in Stanford Medicine, I’m eager to read more.

Kim Smuga-Otto is a student in UC Santa Cruz’s science communication program and a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication and Public Affairs.

Previously: This summer’s Stanford Medicine magazine shows some skinHenry Kaplan's crusade against Hodgkin's disease, TED Talk discusses the movement to eradicate polio, and Researchers tackle unusual challenge in polio eradication
Photo by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

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