Jonas Salk: saviour of many, but scourge of the scientific community

Jonas Salk was a hero of science, but a new book recounts how he was shunned by other scholars

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 May, 2015, 3:44am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

Given that he's one of the best known and widely admired heroes of science, Jonas Salk has occupied relatively little space on libraries' "Biography" bookshelves. You can certainly find substantial biographical entries online, and there are several books - mostly short, often aimed at younger readers - that focus pretty narrowly on his creation of the first safe and effective polio vaccine. But Jonas Salk: A Life, by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, billed as "the first complete biography" of Salk, fills a gap worth filling.

Salk was an interestingly complicated man: idealistic and unconventional, conceited but vulnerable, often described as mild-mannered but just as often arrogant and combative. He worked to fight great scourges of the 20th century: influenza, multiple sclerosis and Aids.

But it was polio that made him a celebrity when his vaccine was made available in 1955, offering protection from a disease debilitating tens of thousands of Americans a year.

A chapter called "Relief from Fear" lists some of the memorials and gifts dedicated to him by a grateful public: medallions, keys to cities, trees for Israel, a 209-foot-long telegram signed by 8,000 residents of a Canadian city, a silver plough and an Oldsmobile from a Texas town.

Movie stars came to visit, babies were named after him. But at the same time, Jacobs makes clear, Salk was rejected by fellow scientists who disdained his liking for the limelight and thought he had failed to give credit to other researchers. He spent years of his life fighting with his colleagues.

Jacobs, a physician and professor emerita of medicine at Stanford University, has packed her book with juicy moments. The disputes between Salk and other scientists are described as "vicious" and "backstabbing". She recounts his 28-year marriage to a beautiful, multitalented woman, which ended in divorce, and his inability to connect with his sons. She gives details of his subsequent 25-year marriage to Francoise Gilot, who had famously been the long-time lover and muse of Pablo Picasso. She also recounts the many lovers Salk had during both marriages.

And there's his decades-long battle over the replacement of his injected vaccine with the oral vaccine developed by rival scientist Albert Sabin.

Jonas Salk: A Life is by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

The Washington Post