The Greatest American: His Passion for a Cure

June 20, 2008
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“The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more,” said by the American biologist and physician Jonas Salk. This simple quote perhaps can sum up Salk’s life in one mere sentence. He was a selfless, hardworking, and determined man who was best known for his development of the killed-virus polio vaccine. He opened new doors to those who thought that their life was approaching its last day. He brought hope to the world – not just America – in one simple vaccine. Because of his success, Jonas Salk is the greatest American.

If someone would have told Dora and Daniel B. Salk, Russian-Jewish immigrants, that their son would someday save millions of lives, they probably would not have believed them. Salk was born in New York City on October 28, 1914 and attended Townsend Harris High school. From there he attended City College of New York and received a B.Sc. He later went on to the School of Medicine at New York University and received a medical degree in 1939. When Salk was a child, he did not show any interest in medicine, or even science. "As a child I was not interested in human anatomy. I was merely interested in things human, the human side of nature, if you like, and I continue to be interested in that. That's what motivates me. And in a way, it's the human dimension that has intrigued me," said Salk. His first hopes were to become a lawyer. His mother persuaded him to change his major, simply because she said that he wouldn’t be good at being a lawyer. He was offered a chance to do research and teach biochemistry in his first year of medical school. At the end of that year, he preferred to stay with medicine. “And I believe that this is all linked to my original ambition, or desire, which was to be of some help to humankind, so to speak, in a larger sense than just on a one-to-one basis,” said Salk. Even before becoming a physician, Salk had dreams to help the world and all of mankind.

Jonas Salk had been interested in vaccines and preventing diseases early on. While in medical school, he heard lectures that stated that it was necessary to go through the experience of infection in order to be immune to a virus. He felt “that those two statements can’t possibly both be true. One has to be false.” So, while still in college, he began working with Dr. Thomas Frances, Jr. on an influenza vaccine. After medical school, Salk worked as a staff physician at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in NYC, he worked at Dr. Francis’s virus lab at University of Michigan, and he led the Virus Research lab at the University of Pittsburgh. Although he continued his research in the influenza virus, his new aspiration was the poliomyelitis vaccine. In the 1950’s he began research, and by 1955 he began immunizations at Pittsburgh's Arsenal Elementary School. The polio vaccine effectively protected humans from the polio virus. Many considered Salk a miracle worker when news of the discovery was made public on April 12, 1955. Salk refused to patent the vaccine. He had no desire to profit from his success, but he wished that the vaccine was distributed as widely as possible. In 1955, he was asked if anyone owned the patent on the vaccine. He responded, "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?" Salk’s vaccine is still used today in many countries, and where it is used, the disease is virtually eradicated.

Because of Jonas Salk chose to never give up in what he wanted, the world now is virtually free of the poliomyelitis virus. He is the greatest American because he not only wanted to help Americans, but the whole world also. He did not want to gain personally from his discovery, but to only see the vaccine used world-wide. After his invention of the polio vaccine, he hoped to do more to help the world. During his last years and before his death on June 23, 1995, he co-founded The Immune Response Corporation with Kevin Kimberlin to search for a vaccine against AIDS.

To me, Jonas Salk is the greatest American because he helped all of mankind and wanted nothing in return. Many Americans only think of themselves and what they can get out of what they are doing. Jonas Salk was the complete opposite. He has saved many lives and spared many people from having to be paralyzed for the rest of their life. My grandmother, unfortunately, contracted the virus before the vaccine was developed and is now left with the virus’s consequence: paralysis of her left leg. Salk is an inspiration to her, to others, and to me. Because of Salk’s love for helping others, most of mankind can now walk, and even run to help others in return.





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