Vaccines Don’t Come Easy. I Should Know. My Father Was Jonas Salk.

My father, Jonas Salk, saved millions. Let me tell you: It wasn't easy.

by Dr. Peter Salk

Born in New York City in 1914, Jonas Salk was a virologist and research scientist who led the University of Pittsburgh team that developed the first successful polio vaccine in 1955. In 1960, he founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. From 1939 to 1968, he was married to Donna Salk, with whom he had three sons, Peter, Darrell, and Jonathan. Dr. Peter Salk is president of the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation and a professor of infectious diseases and microbiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

My father was not a person with an off switch. He was extremely passionate and driven by his research. His dedication to his work kept him at the laboratory for long stretches of time. Because he and I were so rarely alone together when I was a boy, my memories of those times are precious to me. For instance, I was three years old when my younger brother Darrell was born. My father stayed home from work and took care of me while my mother was in the hospital. I remember that he made me scrambled eggs with ketchup, which I absolutely loved. I can still see us there in the kitchen, him at the stove, and taste the ketchup on those scrambled eggs.

Soon after Darrell was born, we moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to a house forty-five minutes outside of Pittsburgh. The home was in a fairly rural area, one of a small line of houses along Route 19, then a two-lane road. Both of my parents were city kids—my father grew up in the Bronx, and my mother grew up in Manhattan. But my father really wanted our family to experience a country environment, for which I am ever grateful. I grew up catching butterflies and playing in the fields and woods. Even when we moved into Pittsburgh proper in 1953, we continued to experience a country setting during summer vacations, when we’d stay in a rental cottage at Oberlin Beach on Lake Erie, a bit west of Cleveland. The only telephone during our first summers there was housed in a wooden box attached to a telephone pole at the side of the gravel road, and it was shared by the cottages in the small community. I remember my father walking out to the phone to speak with Lorraine, his secretary, or with the other scientists back at the lab. They were feverishly working on a vaccine to prevent polio, a disease that paralyzed and crippled primarily children, and which, at that time, was ravaging the country. In 1952, the worst year on record, there were around 58,000 cases of polio that resulted in more than 3,000 deaths.

I knew from my early years that my father was a physician and a scientist, and I could see the respect others had for him. Always wrapped up in his work, he would frequently come home from the lab at night with a small piece of paper containing reminders tucked under his tie clip. My brothers and I occasionally found ourselves in the unwelcome position of being on the receiving end of his experimental work. Two years before the vaccine against polio was released, he gave us our first injections in the kitchen. He brought home glass syringes and reusable needles, and boiled them on our stove to sterilize them. My mother then lined us up to get our shots. I remember once hiding behind the large wastebasket next to the refrigerator in an attempt to avoid being captured and put through the ordeal. Darrell once hid under his bed and had to be dragged out. I’m sure my parents explained to us what we were being injected with and why, but whatever explanation they gave didn’t provide much comfort. The worst moments were when my father drew blood from our arms to test how the vaccine was working. I was still quite little then, and my veins were small and hard to find; I was greatly relieved when the vein in my arm finally grew large and easy to access when necessary.

When the work on the polio vaccine came to the public’s attention, and particularly when the success of the national field trial of the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine was announced in April 1955, my father became quite well-known. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine and was hailed as a hero. Though he had mixed feelings about the degree of recognition he received, he realized the importance of his role as a communicator with the public and embraced it. He also saw the value of his success with the polio vaccine in terms of other doors that might be opened for him. As he liked to say, “The reward for a job well done is the opportunity to do more.” (There was a minor side benefit to his notoriety that I once observed. He was pulled over by a policeman in the country outside of Pittsburgh. When the officer saw the name on my father’s driver’s license, he let him off with a warning instead of a ticket.)

I don’t remember my father talking much with us kids about the work he was doing, though he certainly talked extensively with my mother (who helped him edit some of his papers). But one life-changing experience is seared into my memory. I recall sitting on a blanket with my father in the front yard during the summer of 1953. I was nine years old, and my father, for the first time, started talking to me in detail about the polio vaccine work he was doing. He talked about antibodies and the immune system, and showed me a variety of charts and graphs of the experimental results. I remember how well-organized and clear his ideas were, and how everything fell into place with the charts he showed me. I was struck by the feeling, in that moment, that someday I wanted to work with him.

My relationship with my father had its complexities. At times, when we talked together, he would be wrapped up in his own ideas and not fully open to my point of view. However, we had some extraordinary experiences when we finally did work together. I spent thirteen years at the Salk Institute, starting in 1972, and then worked with him on an HIV/AIDS vaccine project under the auspices of the Jonas Salk Foundation from 1991 until he died in 1995. I had some skills, perhaps similar to his, in making complex experimental results understandable in a graphic form. My father always valued what I did, and I felt the satisfaction of knowing that he fully appreciated my efforts. And when we worked together on various manuscripts, there was a unique way in which we were able to find a common ground that allowed our ideas to be expressed succinctly and effectively. I will always treasure those times with him.

There is a photo that beautifully illustrates this aspect of our relationship. It was taken in the small office I occupied when I was working with my father on the HIV/AIDS vaccine project. I don’t recall what we were reviewing, but the delight on my father’s face, and his total absorption in what he was reading, will always remain with me. Moments like those were precious—the very best part of the relationship we shared.