In 1954, Charlotte DeCroes stood in line with her fellow second graders in Kingsport, Tennessee and received the polio vaccine. Her Tennessee hometown was one of the test sites for what was then the largest and most significant clinical trial in the history of medicine. By the end of 1953, there were 35,968 reported polio cases, and the United States was desperate to solve this devastating illness. A survey at the time ranked fear of polio second only to fear of atomic warfare.
Fast forward to 2015. Charlotte Jacobs, MD, professor of medicine, emerita at Stanford, has written a highly acclaimed biography of the famed researcher/physician Jonas Salk, MD, who developed the polio vaccine. In this 1:2:1 podcast, she told me that her ten-year journey into Salk’s life was instigated partly because she couldn’t find a thorough autobiography on him, something she considered a historical lapse.
Jacobs has written a finely honed and balanced portrait – saluting Salk’s great accomplishment while not flinching from describing a man who was enigmatic, complex and all too human. She conducted more than a hundred personal interviews and spoke to two of his three sons along with his longtime private secretary. The dichotomies of his life are fascinating. While he was loved and lauded by the public and the media, he was a pariah in the scientific community – never appreciated, accepted or awarded. (His scientific colleagues thought he was a press hound, an impression that was fueled by the media’s adoring gaze – covers and feature articles in the most popular media of the time, including Life, Time, Colliers, Consumer Reports, Popular Mechanics and U.S. News and World Report.)
Today, with vaccine wars sweeping certain areas of the country, Jacobs reminds us of a time when a major public-health crisis engulfed the nation and of a hero who made a difference and changed the landscape of medical history. It’s worth remembering.
Previously: Charlotte Jacobs on finding “snippets during every day” to balance careers in medicine and literature, Stanford doctor-author brings historic figure Jonas Salk to life and Prescribing a story? Medicine meets literature in “narrative medicine”