Interview: Jonas Salk
Developer of Polio Vaccine
May 16, 1991
San Diego, California
Were you interested in science as a child?
Jonas Salk: As a child I was not interested in science. 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.
Were you a curious kid, about nature and that sort of thing?
Jonas Salk: I think I was curious from the earliest age on. There was a photograph of me when I was a year
old and there was that look of curiosity on that infant's face that is inescapable. I have the suspicion that this curiosity
was very much a part of my early life: asking questions about unreasonableness. I tended to observe, and reflect and wonder.
That sense of wonder, I think, is built into us.
It's often said that the curiosity and wonder of childhood is sort of beaten down in us as we grow
Jonas Salk: Yes, I don't think I shared it too much with others. I kept it pretty much to myself, and when
I reached that age at which I could do something about it, then I did. So it was not suppressed or destroyed.
It's that curiosity that bursts in childhood, during the period of play and creativity that reveals what
we're trying to say. That's the nature of the human being. That's what is the nature of the human species, as distinct from
other species, where we see this enormous creativity because we are responsible for all that has been created, beyond that
which nature has done.
How did you decide to become a scientist? Did this happen in high school?
Jonas Salk: At some point, I recall having the ambition to study law, to be elected to Congress, and to
try to make just laws, but I didn't pursue the study of law, for a curious reason. My mother didn't think I'd make
a very good lawyer. And I believe that her reasons were that I couldn't really win an argument with her.
This change took place between leaving high school and entering college. I entered college enrolled as a
pre-law student, but I changed to pre-med after I went through some soul searching as to what I would do other than the study
of the law.
What did your father do?
Jonas Salk: My father... was a more artistic person. He was a designer in the garment industry, so to speak.
He had not quite graduated from high school, only from elementary school.
So, it started with you doubting something that everyone else assumed was true?
Jonas Salk: I didn't doubt it. I just questioned the logic of it, the reasonableness of it, when
other people accepted it. I just didn't accept what appeared to me to be a dogmatic assertion in view of the fact that there
was a reason to think otherwise. So that it was not merely doubting a belief, there was a principle involved. I try to understand
the laws of nature, the principles that are involved, and that's what I've attempted to do ever since then, in the
development of what I think of as the science of vaccinology, which had not been a science prior thereto. I entered medicine
with the idea of bringing science into medicine. I had the opportunity to investigate this question scientifically, thinking
and working as a scientist.
I was not trained as a scientist. I was trained in medicine. And, so my functioning, you might say,
as a medical scientist, came through being self-taught through the experience of investigating the questions that were of
interest to me. And, I had no formal training as a virologist, or as an immunologist. But, I learned what
I needed to know in order to address those questions.
..Why do I see things differently from the way other people see them? Why do I pursue the questions that
I pursue, even if others regard them as, as they say, "controversial?" Which merely means that they have a difference of opinion.
They see things differently. I am interested both in nature and in the human side of nature, and how the two can be brought
together, and effective in a useful way.
It sounds like a risk [taking a year off from classes and working in the field of chemistry] that
really paid off.
Jonas Salk: Risks, I like to say, always pay off. You learn what to do, or what not to do. I like to say
"nothing ventured, nothing gained." If I had failed to take advantage of that opportunity, I would not have known what I would
have missed. That was the beginning of many similar opportunities which have come my way.
You mentioned earlier that you were not classically trained; you didn't have the Ph.D. Why did you
choose to pursue your career in the unconventional way you did?
Jonas Salk: It was not unconventional at that time. At that time, medical scientists were self-made. Jenner,
who developed the vaccine against small pox, was not specifically trained. Pasteur was a biochemist. There wasn't a particular
pattern, which provided me with a degree of freedom. In spite of the fact that I did not have any formal training, I still
was able to contribute in these ways, which allowed me to pick and choose whatever it was that I needed to know to address
that question, bringing to bear whatever tools or techniques or knowledge I might need to obtain the answer.
How did your work with the polio vaccine come about?
Jonas Salk: After my internship, in '42, I went to Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was there until '47, then went
on to Pittsburgh, to be somewhat independent of my mentor. The opportunity in Pittsburgh was something that others did not
see, and I was advised against doing something as foolish as that because there was so little there. However, I did see that
there was an opportunity to do two things. One was to continue the work I was doing on influenza, and two, to begin to work
on polio. That was a very modest beginning.
Within a few months after I arrived in Pittsburgh, I was visited by the director of research of the
National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, asking if I would be willing to participate in a program on typing polio viruses.
I had no experience in working with polio, but this provided me with an opportunity, just as the work on influenza did. So,
I seized upon that opportunity. It gave me a chance to get funds, to get laboratory facilities, get equipment, and to hire
a staff, and to build up something that was not there. It also would provide me with an opportunity to learn about how you
work with the polio virus.
That experience was looked upon by most people as routine drudgery. It wasn't that way to me, because instantly
I saw that there were more efficient ways of typing viruses than were proposed by those who set forth the protocol that I
was supposed to follow. It didn't take long for them to realize that I saw the world differently, and that I could
make things work more efficiently and effectively. In the course of that work, it became obvious to me that we had
the ways and means for moving ahead toward vaccine development. We knew there were three types of the virus. John Enders,
Thomas Weller, and Frederick Robbins at Harvard had just grown the virus in tissue culture. I didn't delay. I didn't waste
any time, just picked up these methods and techniques, and began to advance them even further ahead than those who initiated
the work. By putting the bits and pieces together, I moved very quickly into studies in animals, and then on humans.
You got quite a bit of flack for that because no one had done it before, and you were going out
on a limb.
Jonas Salk: I wasn't going out on a limb. The flack to which you refer is what taught me, very early on,
not only about the human side of nature, but about the human side of science.
There are three stages of truth. First, is that it can't be true, and that's what they said. You couldn't
immunize against polio with a killed-virus vaccine. Second phase: they say, "Well, if it's true, it's not very important."
And, the third stage is, "Well, we've known it all along." What you are describing is the process that you have to
go through when you come up with an idea that has not yet been tried or tested.
While it is true that this involves personalities, it also involves different ways of seeing.
It was not a matter of a popularity contest, it was not a matter of anything other than that my curiosity drove me
to find out whether it could work or not.
It's unnerving to find that scientists who are bent on helping mankind get into these very bitter
rivalries. Is that just a part of the field?
Jonas Salk: The contradiction is in your assertion. You say these scientists have a bent to help mankind.
That's not what their objective is. If that was their objective, they might approach it somewhat differently. That is not
necessarily the case. The motivation that drives us to do what we do is different in each instance. You begin to understand,
from the effect it has produced, what is the person's real motivation. There are two aspects to our pursuits. You
have to deal with nature, as I do when I go into the laboratory and do an experiment, and you have to deal with the human
side of nature, which concerns how colleagues or others will react. This is what piqued my curiosity early in life.
It continues to pique my curiosity. That's what I think of as the human dimension.
It sounds like you have to develop a fairly thick skin in this field.
Jonas Salk: You have to develop a thick skin in life. It's not in this field only. You might think of the
ideal of the scientists, the ivory tower, the idealist. That's true of some. And, I wouldn't guess as to what proportion.
But there are some who are of that character, and there are some who are not. What comes to mind now, as I often think
of this, it's like a sea gull syndrome. I call them sea gull syndrome. When I walk on the beach, I see the sea gulls, going
out and getting a fish or a piece of bread on the beach. And the others go after him, that one, rather than go get their own.
And so, I see sometimes that if someone does something and gets credit for it, then there is this tendency to have this competitive
Since the success of the vaccine came when you were at a pretty young age, we might imagine that you walked into
a laboratory and there it was. I'm sure it wasn't that easy. What things didn't work out that led you to what did work out?
Jonas Salk: As I look upon the experience of an experimentalist, everything that you do is, in a sense, succeeding.
It's telling you what not to do, as well as what to do. Not infrequently, I go into the laboratory, and people would
say something didn't work. And I say, "Great, we've made a great discovery!" If you thought it was going to work, and it didn't
work, that tells you as much as if it did. So my attitude is not one of pitfalls; my attitude is one of challenges and "What
is nature telling me?"
This ideal, this idealized notion that discovery, so to speak, is just something falling into your lap! It's recognizing
something that you might not have anticipated. Or designing an experiment and finding out that it fits within certain parameters,
and you see what the patterns of the response are. And basically, it's entering into a dialogue with nature.
Now, some people might look at something and let it go by, because they don't recognize the pattern and the significance.
It's the sensitivity to pattern recognition that seems to me to be of great importance. It's a matter of being able
to find meaning, whether it's positive or negative, in whatever you encounter. It's like a journey. It's like finding the
paths that will allow you to go forward, or that path that has a block that tells you to start over again or do something
How do you see the role of teamwork in science? You've certainly gone your own way and had tremendous
courage in your personal convictions, but you can't do it all yourself. How do you balance that?
Jonas Salk: It was possible to do what I've done simply because others did see what I saw. You can have a team of unconventional
thinkers, as well as conventional thinkers. If you don't have the support of others you cannot achieve anything altogether
on your own. It's like a cry in the wilderness. In each instance there were others who could see the same thing, and there
were others who could not. It's an obvious difference we see in those who you might say have a bird's eye view, and those
who have a worm's eye view. I've come to realize that we all have a different mind set, we all see things differently,
and that's what the human condition is really all about.
What are those attributes [leading to success]?
Jonas Salk: Well, I play with words. And at the moment, for some time now, I've been playing with the words that distinguish
between what I call "evolvers" and "maintainers of the status quo."
The evolvers are people who cause things to change. The maintainers of the status quo do everything to keep things
from changing. And, there I see differences in perception, differences in vision, differences in interpretation,
and differences in temperament, in personality. The number of evolvers are much fewer than the maintainers of the
status quo. And, amongst the evolvers, there are some who are initiators, some who go along with what other
people recognize to be new or different.
I have come to associate the kind of success that you're referring to, to individuals who have a combination of attributes
that are often associated with creativity. In a way they are mutants, they're different from others and they follow their
own drummer. We know what that means. And, either you are like that or you're not like that. If you are, then it would be
well to recognize that there were others before you. And, people like that are not very happy or content, until they are allowed
to express, or they can express what's in them to express.
We know what that means. Are we all like that? We are not like that. If you are, then it would be well to recognize that
there were others before you. People like that are not very happy or content, until they are allowed to express what's in
them to express. It's that driving force that I think is like the process of evolution working on us, and in us, and with
us, and through us. That's how we continue on, and will improve our lot in life, solve the problems that arise partly out
of necessity, partly out of this drive to improve.
What role does instinct play in decision making? Has your gut ever sent you in a surprising direction?
Jonas Salk: I call that intuition. My last book is called The Anatomy of Reality; the subtitle is Merging of
Intuition and Reason.
Reason alone will not serve. Intuition alone can be improved by reason, but reason alone without intuition can
easily lead the wrong way. The both are necessary. The way I like to put it is that I might have an intuition about
something, I send it over to the reason department. Then after I've checked it out in the reason department, I send it back
to the intuition department to make sure that it's still all right. For myself, that's how my mind works, and that's how I
work. That's why I think that there is both an art and a science to what we do. The art of science is as important as so-called
technical science. You need both. It's this combination that must be recognized and acknowledged and valued.
You see a very clear connection between science and art, because you are seeing patterns and designs in a creative
way that no one has seen before.
Jonas Salk: Oh, yes. That's why Françoise [wife of Jonas Salk] dedicated one of her books: "To Jonas, who possesses the
art of science." And one of my books I dedicated to her, as someone who illuminates all life. As I said earlier, each individual
has their own telos. Each of us has an art in us, which is what we should express, practice.