- Paperback: 576 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (December 1, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0190679166
- ISBN-13: 978-0190679163
- Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 1.5 x 5.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 55 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #624,404 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Jonas Salk: A Life Reprint Edition
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Chosen as New York Times Book Review "100 Notable Books of 2015"
"This is science writing at its best."--New York Times Book Review
"...[R]emarkable, warts-and-all biography...sweeping and sympathetic narrative."--Wall Street Journal
"...[I]nsightful...With an unerring sense of pace, Jacobs...relates the story of this complex man and his remarkable life as a scientific pioneer and a popular icon."--Chicago Tribune
"...[F]ills a gap worth filling."--Washington Post
"An extraordinarily rich biography of the doctor Americans adored and all but regarded as a saint...Jacobs makes a convincing case that Salk was a shy man who never succeeded in making the scientific or personal connections that could bring happiness, but his idealism proved a boon to mankind."--Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"[A] treasure trove of facts and stories...Recommended to readers of scientific biographies and those interested in the practice of science in America."--Library Journal
"The story of Jonas Salk is an endlessly fascinating one and in Charlotte Jacobs's capable hands this will be a winner and an important book."--Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone and Professor and Doctor of Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine
Featured in Health Affairs
About the Author
Charlotte D. Jacobs, M.D. is the Ben and A. Jess Shenson Professor of Medicine (Emerita) at Stanford University. She has served as Senior Associate Dean and as Director of the Clinical Cancer Center, and is the author of Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin's Disease.
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As might be expected, the book is largely in two parts. The first 214 pages cover Salk’s early life and the work with polio. The remainder of the 458 pages of text deals mostly with the origin, development and changes in the Salk Institute and Salk’s increasingly difficult relationship with the institute he founded. It also covers Salk’s later work on an AIDS vaccine, something I was unfamiliar with. Jacobs does an excellent job covering the development of the polio vaccine and the public’s reaction to it. The reader may be appalled how human trials were conducted in the first half of the 20th century. Ending polio was an end that justified what today (not then) were highly questionable means. To those who did not live through that time, it is almost impossible to imagine the fear that gripped families in the early 1950’s. (In summer I could not play in public parks or drink out of public water fountains and was told regularly that I did not want to end up in an iron lung.) People were terrified of polio. When the Salk vaccine arrived, it was as if a dam of fear broke and relief flooded the country. What Salk went through during that period is worth the price of the book alone. Probably nothing like that has occurred to a scientist in history. Pasteur and Koch were lionized in their countries in the 1800’s for their life-saving discoveries, but they did not have the media we have. Einstein is Mr. Science in the press but he did not save children’s lives. The Salk-polio story is unique in many ways and Jacobs tells it well.
The Salk Institute, now one of the leading biological research institutes on the planet, was envisioned by Salk as something quite different – a place where both humanists and scientists could find a home “under one roof” for their best thought and work. It continues to be a place for superb scientific work but in a much narrower frame than Salk imagined. This part of the book is less thrilling for obvious reasons but Jacobs does a nice job of telling the story of the Institute and how Salk eventually got in the way of his own work. Salk was never completely accepted by the scientific community and the reader will be left, along with Jacobs, to ponder why. He was viewed as a “kitchen chemist” who did not follow scientific protocol and was far too interested in making Life Magazine than in building solid scientific research. It is incredibly hard to tell how much of the criticism is accurate and how much is the jealousy that comes about from scientific competition and watching the other guy (Salk in this case) become a world famous household name beloved by millions. This is another of the paradoxes Jacobs brings out – the discoverer of the polio vaccine who could never get elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
This book has received some criticism because it deals with Salk’s personal life too much. It only does that in a couple chapters and I do not think the biography would be complete without it. A sign that Salk may have been far more competent that many thought in science was his work late in his life on an AIDS vaccine. He did not just dabble but was able to produce work that advanced the field. However, once again Salk did his trials by “getting around” the FDA regulations partly through using his famous name recognition but doing it, Jacobs implies, because he cared deeply about the fact that people were dying while the government fiddled. Many scientists have lived lives of controversy and had personal lives that did not match the public image. We just have much more data today and a media that hounds people and then makes them or breaks them in the popular mind. It would seem that, despite the many flaws in Salk’s life and the image projected by the media and supported by Salk, he may have deserved better from his scientific peers. We get clues in the book (such as Albert Sabin’s unrelenting hostility to Salk and the acceptance of the Sabin vaccine over Salk’s) but ultimately we are simply left unsure as to reasons. Jacobs’ biography of Salk gives the reader a great deal to think about – both about who this man was and how the public and the scientific community reacted to him. It is a fine book.
Early in the 1950s, as polio steadily grew more prevalent with every succeeding summer, I grew from childhood into adolescence, prime years for susceptibility to what was more properly (though misleadingly) called infantile paralysis. Most of my friends chafed under the near-hysteria of their parents, but my father was a doctor: there was no hysteria in our household. Instead, I was quickly spirited out of town to rural summer camps where polio was rare.
Then, with hope rising as a result of increasingly more optimistic field tests beginning in 1953, headlines around the world finally blared in the spring of 1955, “Polio is Defeated!” A young doctor, barely more than forty years old, had developed a safe and effective vaccine with financial support exclusively from what was popularly known as the March of Dimes. (That organization was very different from its successor today, which focuses on premature birth and birth defects.) Salk become an instant global star. In many communities, the celebrations that ensued rivaled those that capped the victories in World War II. The doctor’s now well-known name was Jonas Salk. Now, Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, both a physician and a biographer, has written what may be the definitive story of the man’s life. It’s an outstanding piece of work, and an eye-opener.
The polio wars: Salk vs. Sabin
Salk’s vaccine, technically a “killed virus vaccine” administered by injection, came into existence only because Salk used an unconventional approach and doggedly persevered in his research despite the loud protestations of other virologists. Most prominent among the chorus of naysayers was Albert Sabin, a rival researcher whose oral “live virus vaccine” against polio came into wide use only in the 1960s. Even after an enormous field test proved Salk’s vaccine to be both safe and effective, Sabin and others continued to insist loudly that a killed virus vaccine was dangerous and should not be administered. This led the FDA to call a temporary halt to the administration of the vaccine. Later, it also came to be reflected in the adoption by the U.S. government of the oral vaccine as the sole option offered in the United States. For a number of years, the Salk variant was no longer even manufactured in the U.S.
Nonetheless, from 1955 until 1961, Salk’s vaccine reduced the incidence of polio in the United States by ninety-seven percent. In Sweden and Finland, where it was fully adopted, the vaccine totally eliminated polio. Despite this near-flawless record Sabin and others continued to object to the use of Salk’s formulation. When Sabin’s rival vaccine was put into wide use, dozens of Americans eventually contracted paralytic polio as a result, exactly as Salk had predicted. Only years later, once Salk had perfected a more advanced formulation of the killed virus vaccine, was it offered as an option in the United States.
Sabin never acknowledged in any way the damage his vaccine had done, and for the rest of his life continued to undermine Salk in scientific circles, as did a number of other prominent researchers. Though idolized in the press and among the public, Salk was virtually a pariah in the scientific community, at least in part because the press had made him a celebrity. (Clearly, his unpopularity within the scientific establishment was also a result of his insistence on working in his own way, without regard for others’ views.) He was essentially blackballed in the Nobel committee and was never admitted to membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.
Influenza, multiple sclerosis, and AIDS
Polio was only one of several diseases Jonas Salk investigated. Barely out of medical school, he and his mentor produced the first influenza vaccine in 1938. His search for a cure for MS showed great promise in the eyes of neurologists, who found his contributions significant, but was denigrated by many of the same virologists who seemed to disapprove of everything he did. Unfortunately, that research ended prematurely when his patron at the National MS Society suddenly died. Salk had many talents, but fundraising wasn’t one of them.
Then, in the 1980s, Salk played a major role in research on AIDS. Early on, he took upon himself to negotiate a compromise between the French and American doctors who both claimed to have first identified HIV. It took two years but finally he succeeded, making possible collaborations that might well otherwise have been out of the question. Then he turned his attention to the development of a vaccine against HIV. Once again, his work was bitterly criticized — because he insisted on taking an unconventional approach. The prevailing wisdom was that a vaccine could only be developed on the basis of one portion of the HIV molecule; Salk insisted on using the whole molecule, which subjected him to ridicule for having ignored recent advances in medical research. However, he was proven right again. Initial trials of his vaccine showed promise and those developed by his critics utterly failed, but the criticism didn’t stop. It never stopped. (No successful AIDS vaccine has ever been developed, despite many promising starts. Research has focused largely on treatment to slow or prevent the progression of the disease.) Sabin continued to bad-mouth Salk at every opportunity — at scientific conferences, in science journals, and in Congressional testimony — until the end of his life. Salk’s forbearance, and his refusal to answer Sabin in kind, was legendary.
Founding the Salk Institute
He didn’t want to name it after himself. The scientific research center he founded in La Jolla, California, in 1960, came to be named the Salk Institute only because the principal fundraiser insisted that he could only raise the necessary money if Salk’s name were attached. In fact, throughout his life, Salk was generally soft-spoken, self-effacing, and unpretentious. He was horrified that the polio vaccine he developed came to be known popularly as the “Salk vaccine.” Whenever possible, he shunned publicity; unfortunately, that was rarely possible.
Salk was, in a word, a nice guy. Expecting him to be cold and uncaring, his teachers in medical school and, later, in his residency discovered that he was solicitous and sensitive in his dealings with patients. And he almost never replied in kind to any of the criticism directed toward him in the scientific community. However, his personal life was marred in several ways: his single-minded devotion to his work caused him to neglect his wife and three sons, and, later in life, before and during his second marriage, he appears to have had numerous affairs.
About the author
Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, M.D., is an Emerita Professor of Medicine at Stanford. There, she engaged in cancer research and served as Director of the Clinical Cancer Center. Jonas Salk is her second medical biography, following Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease. An award-winner both for her work in medicine as well as her writing, Jacobs has also been honored for her acting and singing.
For a variety of reasons, some professional and some personal, Salk was often ignored, even vilified by his peers in the scientific community. In particular, Albert Sabin, no saint himself (not that we Jews have saints), argued vehemently in favor of his attenuated vaccine over Salk's inactivated one, the product in his mind of "kitchen table chemistry.". The biography is at its best in describing the controversies surrounding the vaccines, which carried over into Salk's later career. Salk's legacy centers largely on his vaccine work, and perhaps that is unfair. How does one top the work which has saved tens of thousands of lives in the past sixty years?