The Doctor as National Hero -- "Jonas Salk: A Life"

May 19, 2015

On this edition of ST, we're discussing an interesting new biography, "Jonas Salk: A Life." Our guest is Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, the Shenson Professor of Medicine (Emerita) at Stanford University. Dr. Jacobs -- who's also the author of "Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin's Disease" -- remembers firsthand the polio scare of the middle 20th century, and thus also remembers Salk's widespread celebrity in this country; her heroic portrait of Salk was hailed as a "treasure trove of facts and stories" by Library Journal. And further, per a starred review in Kirkus: "An extraordinarily rich biography of the doctor Americans adored and all but regarded as a saint.... Jacobs delivers a nuanced portrait of Salk (1914-1995), a complex and kind man with a mission to do good for mankind. Salk scotched his plan to become a lawyer when his mother disapproved, and he entered medicine. Early on, he worked on an influenza vaccine, demonstrating the possibility of achieving immunity with a dead rather than weakened live virus. He adopted the same strategy for polio, going against the conventional wisdom of senior investigators. Jacobs chronicles the polio years with a vivid, you-are-there quality. Remarkably, the research and clinical trials of the Salk vaccine all stemmed from the coffers of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and its March of Dimes campaigns. Unfortunately, Salk's availability and popularity with the media only further damaged his credentials with scientists who thought him a scientific lightweight and egotist. Nonetheless, he eventually realized a second dream: to build a scientific institute where great minds could conduct research and bridge the gap between science and the humanities. The result was the Salk Institute, set in La Jolla, California, in buildings designed by Louis Kahn. Sadly, the prestigious institute never bridged the culture gap, and Salk was effectively banished from his lab over time. Yet in his private life, he drew inspiration from a second marriage to Françoise Gilot (a Picasso mistress), and in old age, he enjoyed liaisons with a handful of attractive, intelligent young women with whom he shared a lifetime habit of nighttime thoughts jotted down in moments of wakefulness. Throughout, the author demonstrates a deep understanding of the character and the nature of science in the latter half of the 20th century.... 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."