Jonas Salk: Inventor Of The Polio Vaccine (Life, Bio, & Stories)

By Grace Taylor
Dr. Jonas Salk displays his polio vaccine, which he developed in a University of Pittsburgh laboratory. (Getty Images)

Poliomyelitis, A.K.A. polio, is a viral infection which damages neurons, specifically motor neurons, weakening the infected's muscles and sometimes resulting in paralysis or death. While the origin of the virus is not well known, it was relatively rare until the 1900s, when outbreaks started popping up all over the world. In the United States, 35,000 people became disabled from complications of polio every year. Fortunately, polio no longer attacks children at the rate it once did, thanks in large part to the perseverance and integrity of one man, virologist and researcher Jonas Salk.

The Polio Crisis

Polio first struck the U.S. in 1916 in New York City and spread wildly across the country throughout the following decades. The virus is transmitted orally, usually through contaminated food or water, after which the infected, usually a child, feels shooting pains down their arms and legs and muscle spasms that contort their bodies in bizarre and unnatural positions. In severe cases, the infected become paralyzed, often starting from the extremities but slowly creeping into the abdomen and chest until the muscles that let them breathe on their own no longer function, confining them to an iron lung.

As thousands suffered and died, the medical community—particularly Jonas Salk—raced to develop a vaccine to fight the epidemic. Salk knew the horrors of the disease well, having been born in New York only two years before the first outbreak. He went on to receive his medical education at New York University and dedicated his time during World War II to the research and development of the seasonal flu vaccine. After the war, he got a job at the University of Pittsburgh, where he won a grant to research a successful polio vaccine in 1948.