On the anniversary of his 100th birthday,
The Atlantic interviews the son of polio vaccine researcher
Dr. Jonas Salk on the polio epidemic and the forgetting that has occurred
At a time when a single case of Ebola or enterovirus can
start a national panic, it’s hard to remember the sheer
scale of the polio epidemic. In the peak year of 1952, there
were nearly 60,000 cases throughout America; 3,000 were
fatal, and 21,000 left their victims paralyzed. In Frankie
Flood’s first-grade classroom in Syracuse, New York, eight
children out of 24 were hospitalized for polio over the
course of a few days. Three of them died, and others,
including Janice, spent years learning to walk again.
Then, in 1955, American children began lining up for Jonas
Salk’s new polio vaccine. By the early 1960s, the
recurring epidemics were 97 percent gone.
On misplaced concerns about vaccines and the necessity of herd
Rothenberg Gritz: People have been
concerned by the idea that vaccines can cause disease in
Salk: There are some subtleties to this.
With pertussis, for instance, the old vaccine was based on
using the whole killed organism. That was very effective,
but because there were a whole lot of different kinds of
proteins that were all mixed up, there were some side
effects. Later on, they developed a so-called acellular
pertussis vaccine, where you use purified materials from the
bacterium. It doesn’t produce as strong or long-lasting an
immune response—people need to have booster shots when
they’re adults, for instance. But it doesn’t cause the same
When my own son Michael was born 31 years ago, the
whole-cell vaccine was still in use. Whooping cough was
essentially gone in this country by that time, so from one
perspective, why should we take the risk of causing a high
fever or other side effects in our own child? I know I
certainly thought about this a lot. But I just couldn’t
bring myself to take advantage of the good that other people
had done by immunizing their kids—to take a free ride, so to
speak. Michael did end up developing a fever. But I couldn’t
have lived with my decision if we hadn’t given him the
On the misinformation spread by the anti-vaccine movement:
Rothenberg Gritz: Some vaccine opponents argue that as long as children live healthy lifestyles, they can
either avoid illnesses like polio or recover quickly and
develop “natural immunity.”
Salk: No. I wouldn’t hesitate to use very
strong words about that. Of course it’s a good thing to live
a healthy life, to keep the body strong and well-rested. I
won’t rule out that it can help to protect against some
types of disease. But when it comes to these organisms that
can be very damaging to people, I think it’s wishful
thinking to imagine that a healthy lifestyle can protect
And what we see is that many diseases are starting to come
back. Measles is recurring; whooping cough is recurring. The
kids whose parents are choosing not to immunize them are at
risk, but so are babies and kids who might not be able to be
vaccinated for one reason or another. These kids are no
longer having the same benefit of herd immunity. Their level
of protection is now eroding.
Rothenberg Gritz: Why do you think this
misinformation has spread so widely?
Salk: Part of it is that people have become
complacent because these diseases aren’t rampant anymore.
During the polio epidemic, people were really frightened.
This was a disease they didn’t understand, whose appearance
they couldn’t predict, and it had terrible effects on kids.
Swimming pools and movie theaters were closed. It’s easy to
forget this now. Also, these days, there are a lot of
concerns about living naturally and not wanting to be
exposed to things that are made in a laboratory.
But there are probably other forces at work. Back in the
1950s, people really looked to science and medicine as
something that would make their lives better. But once the
fear of these diseases began to subside, people started
looking at other large-scale forces in the world—the Vietnam
War, the government, and so on—and wondering, Canwe trust large institutions?Can we trust pharmaceutical companies? I think
that that’s something that’s driven people also: a sense of
Read the full interview here.