The Savior of Summer

IN THE CHILDHOOD OF TODAY'S 40-SOME-things and those older, the end of the school year brought not the freedom to frolic in sun and surf, but, for many, strict parental orders to avoid the public pool, the local swimming hole and that lusciously cool curiosity, the air-conditioned movie house. For summer was the dread polio season. No one knew how paralytic polio-myelitis spread. But everyone assumed that crowds were a good place to get a one-way ticket to an iron lung. Mothers admonished children to report immediately the slightest sore throat or, most feared of all, a stiff neck, and to stick with old friends (whose germs they already had). Yet children-especially children, for reasons no one understood- still caught the sometimes-fatal disease, and the little bodies pried up in hospital wards like driftwood. Front pages reported the weekly toll. There were a record 57,879 cases in 1952, all incurable. In 1954 the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, having collected 75 million dimes in theaters throughout the country, funded tests of the first polio vaccine, on 1.8 million schoolchildren. On April 12, 1955, an upstart young researcher announced the results. "The vaccine works," declared Jonas Salk.

Church bells pealed, some schools closed for the day, factories observed a moment of silence. Salk's announcement sparked a tectonic shift in the way people thought and lived. "There was suddenly a release from this great fear--the dread that occurred each summer," Salk recalled. Within weeks children by the thousands lined up for the shots. The annual number of cases dropped to a dozen or fewer. Now, according to medical experts, the disease has been virtually eradicated in the industrialized world. Salk became a medical legend, an instant hero to millions and the man who gave summertime back to the children.

When Salk died of heart failure at the age of 80 last week in La Jolla, Calif., he had reaped every honor the public and government could bestow, starting with the Congressional Gold Medal. The oldest son of a garment worker, Salk grew up in a New York City tenement and paid for his education largely through scholarships. But the scientific establishment never embraced Salk, He was never elected to the National Academy of Sciences; academicians sniffed that his work was not "original." All he did was grow the polio virus in monkey kidney cells, they said, which three Harvard biologists discovered how to do (they won the 1954 Nobel Prize for it); then he killed the virus with formaldehyde and injected it into volunteers. Dr. Albert Sabin, a rival in the race for a polio vaccine, derided it as "pure kitchen chemistry." Salk saw it differently. The Harvard team "threw a long forward pass," he said. "I caught it."

To do that, he had to fight off the defensive backs of scientific orthodoxy. "Dogma held that you couldn't immunize with a killed virus; you had to go through an infection to get immunity," Salk recalled in a 1980 interview. Some virologists argued vehemently that the killed-virus vaccine was inferior and should not be given to the public. Although the 1954 trials proved them wrong, Salk's vaccine was superseded in 1962 by Sabin's oral version. Made with live but weakened viruses, it offers lifetime immunity and is easier to store and administer. The intense, supremely confident Salk feuded bitterly with Sabin, who died in 1998. He delighted in pointing out that live vaccine could, and did, cause polio (though in practice it rarely did).

In his later years Salk became more the speculative scientist-philosopher. He mused that humans could direct their own evolution, and rounded the renowned Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla. Divorced from the mother of his three sons, in 1970 Salk married Picasso's longtime companion, Franqoise Gilot. In the 1980s he began a quest for a vaccine that would prevent full-blown AIDS, in people infected with HIV, by boosting their immune system. AIDS scientists scoffed. But "there have to be people who are ahead of their time," Salk said. "That is my fate."