Birth of Dr. Jonas Salk

Birth of Dr. Jonas Salk

US #3428 from the Distinguished Americans Series. Click the image to order.

Jonas Edward Salk was born on October 28, 1914, in New York, New York.

Salk attended the Townsend Harris High School for gifted students and had a reputation for being a perfectionist.  He would also read anything he could get his hands on. 

From there, Salk went on to attend the City College of New York where he earned a degree in chemistry in 1934.  He had originally wanted to study law and claimed he never had an interest in science as a child, but his mother urged him to pursue medicine.  Salk then went to New York City Medical School.  However, he didn’t want to study medicine, rather he preferred medical research. 

US #3428 – Colorano Silk Cachet First Day Cover. Click the image to order.

Salk soon focused his studies on bacteriology.  He stated that he wanted to help humankind as a whole, instead of single patients.  Salk was particularly influenced by his time in the laboratory of Thomas Francis, who studied the influenza virus.  He helped develop the first effective influenza vaccine, still the basis of the flu vaccinations given today.

US #3428 – Colorano Silk Cachet Combination First Day Cover honoring both Salk and Sabin. Click the image to order.

After graduating and completing his residency at Mount Sinai Hospital, Salk wanted to run his own lab.  In 1947, he received one from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.  The following year, he was contacted by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. They wanted him to try to find out if there were more than three types of polio known at the time.  Paralytic poliomyelitis, or polio, was the most frightening public health problem facing America after World War II.  Each year, thousands of people, mostly children, died or were permanently paralyzed by the disease. 

US #1087 was issued two years after Salk’s vaccine was released. Click the image to order.

Salk assembled a research team and set up a lab. After extensive study, he decided to turn his attention toward creating a vaccine.  At the time, most vaccines used live viruses, which was dangerous.  Salk opted for using the safer “killed” virus.  He conducted his first field tests in 1952; first on children who had recovered from polio, and later on those who had never had the disease.  Both tests were successful, and his findings were published the next year in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

US #3187a from the Celebrate the Century series. Click the image to order.

In 1954, tests were done on an even larger scale.  The vaccine, injected with a needle, was found to reduce the incidence of polio.  On April 12, 1955, it was declared safe and released for use in the US.  It was the first effective polio vaccine and was added to the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines.  One of Salk’s contemporaries, Dr. Albert Sabin, developed an oral vaccine in 1957 that further helped to eradicate polio in the United States and most countries around the world.

Salk became an international celebrity, but he didn’t like the attention.  He also received a presidential citation, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, several foreign and American awards, and four honorary degrees.  But Salk wanted to continue his research.  He established the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in 1963.  He also spent the final chapter of his life researching a vaccine for AIDS.  Salk died on June 23, 1995, in La Jolla, California. 

Item #81565 – Commemorative cover marking the day Salk announced his successful test on a national radio show. Click the image to order.
Item #81909 – Commemorative cover honoring Salk’s 73rd birthday.  Click the image to order.

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9 responses to "Birth of Dr. Jonas Salk"

9 thoughts on “Birth of Dr. Jonas Salk”

  1. Thank you Mystic for a short history lesson on an individual who devoted his talent to making this world a better place for the human race.

  2. I remember well how the local newspaper would publish a list of how many new cases of polio occurred each day during the polio season. I also recall how when I was in 3rd grade our school year was delayed for a month until the threat had passed because of the fear that being in groups increased the risk for it among children. Finally, I remember going to a local school to have the first shot and its boosters and within a year the threat was gone.\

  3. Our organization, Rotary, is working with the Gates Foundation to eliminate polio in the world. So this story, stamps, first day covers was touching. I prefer stamps be put out to honor these type of individuals than many of the lesser people I have found being “honored”.

  4. Thank you Mystic for this info. As I grew up in the polio years and was given the injection, I was very glad they had discovered a cure that would keep me ok. For those that don’t know if you got polio yau were placed in a iron lung. I don’t know why but was a terrible disease that crippled or killed a lot of people. One President Had polio and was crippled when he was in office. He was a true leader and hero he was also a stamp collector.

  5. I would bring homework to a classmate who developed polio and was put into an iron lung. I remember feeling so sorry for him locked up in that thing. In time he actually recovered but had developed a limp for the rest of his life.

  6. Thank you Dr. Salk! I recall that the polio scare was going around and my parents wouldn’t even let me go to the swimming pool. It was thought to be a place to catch the disease. In school we put our change into small iron lungs to raise money to help find a cure and vaccine. Maybe that was a March of Dimes project. Anyway, as soon as the Salk polio vaccine came out, my brothers and I got the vaccine. I knew kids who were partialy paralyzed from polio. How sad for the children, Dr. Salk was the saving pioneer.

  7. I spent an entire summer in the early fifties on a small porch with my two sisters. A little girl on our block in Brooklyn had died of Polio. We were not allowed to go anywhere the entire summer. My mother couldn’t get us that vaccine soon enough when it became available. Smart woman.


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