Salk Legacy

Jonas Salk: Ending Polio’s Reign of Terror

At its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, polio was killing or paralyzing more than a half-million people worldwide each year, especially children and young adults. The “lucky” survived to walk on crutches. Others were so paralyzed they could no longer breathe on their own. Iron lungs, the mechanical ventilators that sustained them, symbolized polio’s reign of terror.

In 1947, the University of Pittsburgh recruited Jonas Salk—an expert in influenza whose flu vaccine is still in use today—to develop a virus program at Pitt. For more than seven years, his team worked tirelessly to develop an effective killed-virus vaccine.

The efforts of Pitt’s polio research team culminated in the largest national controlled field trial in history. At the trial’s successful conclusion, the federal government approved the vaccine for the public on April 12, 1955, an action that Newsweek called “a summit moment in history.”

— From Pitt’s Historic Impact

In addition to his pioneering research with vaccines, Salk also studied and wrote about humanity’s role in the evolutionary scheme.

Pitt’s Iron Lung

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In the same year that Salk began work on a polio vaccine, the new University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health was established in response to the needs of industrial Pittsburgh. The first class of thirty-four students matriculated in 1950, studying in temporary quarters in a wing of the Pittsburgh Municipal Hospital—the same building as Salk’s laboratory. Once Salk's vaccine was shown to be protective against polio and cases in the U.S.A. plummeted, iron lungs became historical relics. 

Just inside the doors from Fifth Avenue, our iron lung is a generous gift from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Located in La Jolla, California, and widely considered one of the top biological research centers in the world, the institute was founded in 1960 by Jonas Salk. The iron lung stands as a symbol of the countless lives saved by public health initiatives like vaccination programs. And vaccines are just the beginning. Things like motor vehicle safety laws, tobacco use restrictions, family planning resources, and clean air and water standards keep people alive. Our students, alumni, and faculty are part of these life-saving initiatives each day. 

Salk Symposia at Pitt Public Health

Pitt Public Health periodically hosts a symposium in Jonas Salk’s honor. Topics are chosen from among his varied interests based on continuing importance to public health today.

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Amanpour & Salk: Vaccine lessons from history (video) 

Amanpour & Salk: Vaccine lessons from history (video)

CNN — Christiane Amanpour discusses with IDM's Peter Salk the 97% drop in polio prevalence within a few years of initial vaccine adoption. In 1953, Dr. Peter Salk was one of the first to receive a polio vaccine—from none other than his father, Jonas Salk. They go on to discuss herd immunity and vac... (01/13/2021)
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Paralized 

Paralized

PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE - In a 3500-word and photo retrospective, journalist Laura Malt Schneiderman looks back at the last massive vaccine rollout—for polio—which started in Pittsburgh. (01/12/2021)
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From polio to the COVID vaccine, IDM's Peter Salk sees great progress 

From polio to the COVID vaccine, IDM's Peter Salk sees great progress

NPR - IDM's Peter Salk was just 9 when he got one of the first polio vaccine shots in 1953 at the family home outside Pittsburgh. Today, he has been hugely impressed by the development of a vaccine in less than a year. Dr. Salk is a bit concerned about the number of people who are reluctant, or out... (12/30/2020)
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"It's going to be a long road" - What IDM's Peter Salk thinks about COVID-19 

"It's going to be a long road" - What IDM's Peter Salk thinks about COVID-19

USA TODAY - Jonas Salk’s vaccine helped wipe polio from most of the world, something that many people hope will happen with the coronavirus vaccine. However, IDM's Dr. Peter Salk warns eradicating polio from the U.S. was a long and difficult journey, and he doesn’t expect eliminating COVID-19 will ... (12/29/2020)

Q&A: Peter Salk on the Lessons Learned from Vaccine Development History 

Q&A: Peter Salk on the Lessons Learned from Vaccine Development History

Peter Salk was 11 years old when a University of Pittsburgh team led by his father, the late Jonas Salk, created the inactivated poliovirus vaccine. The day of the 1955 announcement that the vaccine was safe, effective and potent, “everything just went crazy,” he recalls. “There were so many calls ... (11/17/2020)
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Jonas Salk’s son sees hope in COVID-19 efforts, still pushing for polio eradication 

Jonas Salk’s son sees hope in COVID-19 efforts, still pushing for polio eradication

PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE - Peter Salk, IDM faculty and director of The Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation, worries that "the [polio] eradication program is going to take a hit from some of the coronavirus efforts, because of the focus [in funding and research] on the coronavirus.” But he's happy that team... (04/12/2020)


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