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Hero in a White Lab Goat

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THE CALL CAME ABOUT 12 YEARS ago, as AIDS was making its terrible presence felt. “I remember my secretary saying, ‘Jonas Salk is on the phone,’ ” says Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. “I thought she was kidding. I didn’t even know he was still alive. But I got on the phone, and he started asking me questions about immunology.”

Dr. Jonas Salk was determined to defeat the new scourge. He fell short, but it is a mark of his determination that, at age 80, he was still at work on an AIDS vaccine the day before he died on June 23 in La Jolla, Calif., of congestive heart failure. It was the same determination that had led him to one of the century’s most celebrated medical breakthroughs: the virtual eradication of polio.

Polio was an enemy that usually struck the young and condemned them to lives in wheelchairs or iron lungs. Its most famous victim was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but the highly contagious virus was an equal-opportunity crippler. In 1952 nearly 58,000 cases were reported in the United States, more than 3,000 of them fatal. As public hysteria grew, Salk committed himself to the then-radical notion that an effective virus could be made from killed—as opposed to live but neutralized—viruses. Following successful tests on animals, the vaccine was tried on humans, with Salk and his family among the first volunteers. In subsequent trials on more than 1 million schoolchildren, the vaccine was proved (in the words of Salk’s famous 1955 announcement) “safe, effective and potent.” After 1969 the disease almost vanished in America.

The son of a garment worker and a homemaker, Salk grew up in a New York City tenement and graduated from New York University medical school. In 1942 he moved to the University of Michigan to develop influenza vaccines. The night his polio vaccine was announced, Salk told Edward R. Murrow on See It Now that he was not planning to patent his vaccine. “Could you patent the sun?” he asked. Soon streets and hospital wings were being named for the self-effacing researcher. By 1962 an oral vaccine derived from live viruses and developed by Dr. Albert Sabin had become the more popular method of inoculation, but Salk’s name remains forever linked with the conquest of polio.

In 1970, Salk married artist Francoise Gilot, Pablo Picasso’s former mistress and mother of Claude and Paloma Picasso. Salk had divorced his first wife, Donna, with whom he had three sons, in 1968. Gilot and Salk became benefactors to several museums. But fame interested Salk only to the degree that it helped him further his work. In 1960 he founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla “to help scientists reach their greatest potential,” says the institute’s faculty chairman, Wylie Vale. “He would tell kids to live their dreams; that before anything was a reality, it was a dream.”


SCOTT LAFEE in La Jolla and MARY ESSELMAN in Washington