Papers Trace Development of Salk Polio Vaccine

Jonas Salk on the cover of Wisdom magazine in 1956.

The UC San Diego Library's Mandeville Special Collections houses the papers of some of the world's most prominent and innovative scientists, including the personal archives of Nobel Laureates Francis Crick, Harold Urey, Maria Goeppert Mayer, Hannes Alfven, and others. Now, the Library will be adding the personal papers of Jonas Salk, the renowned physician, virologist, and humanitarian best known for his development of the world's first successful vaccine for the prevention of polio.

The papers were recently donated to the Library's Mandeville Special Collections by Salk's sons, Peter, Darrell and Jonathan, all of whom, like their father, trained as physicians and are involved in medical and scientific activities.

While recognized worldwide for his significant contributions, Jonas Salk is perhaps best known locally for his founding of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, adjacent to UC San Diego, and the impact this had on the city's metamorphosis into a major center for biomedical and scientific research and discovery. In fall 2014, the Institute will celebrate the Jonas Salk Centenary and, as part of this notable milestone, the Library will hold a major exhibition of the Salk papers.

A 1957 U.S. postal stamp honoring those who helped to fight polio.

The Salk papers document Jonas Salk's professional and scientific activities, from the mid-1940's to the mid-1990's. Best documented are activities largely related to the development of the Salk polio vaccine in the mid-1950's to the early 1960's, and the founding of the Salk Institute. The papers include general writings and correspondence, files relating to polio, photographs, artifacts, two dictating machines, and various research materials.

Prominent correspondents include: Basil O'Connor and officers of the National Foundation/March of Dimes; immunologists Thomas Francis and Albert Sabin, physicist Leo Szilard; mathematician and philosopher Jacob Bronowski; architect Louis Kahn; and other important figures in the worlds of art, science, education, public administration, and humanitarianism.

Salk chose San Diego as the site for what was to become the Salk Institute for Biological Studies after a year touring the country for the right location. In June 1960, through a referendum, the citizens of San Diego overwhelmingly voted to make a gift of 27 pueblo lots in the La Jolla area, just west of the new University of California, San Diego campus, for Salk's dream. The Institute began operation in temporary quarters in 1963, and permanent buildings designed by architect Kahn were completed in 1967.

Salk came to La Jolla following a career in clinical medicine and virology research. After obtaining his M.D. degree at the New York University School of Medicine in 1939, he served as a staff physician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He then joined his mentor, Dr. Thomas Francis, as a research fellow at the University of Michigan. There he worked to develop an influenza vaccine at the behest of the U.S. Army. In 1947, he was appointed director of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where he began to develop the techniques that would lead to his polio vaccine.

Jonas Salk holding up bottles of the polio vaccine.

Jonas Salk during a visit to the CDC (Center for Disease Control).

Salk's research caught the attention of O'Connor, then president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and the organization decided to fund his efforts to develop a killed-virus vaccine against the most frightening scourge of the time, paralytic poliomyelitis. Given the fear and anxiety that polio caused during the first half of the century, the vaccine's success in 1955 made Salk an international hero, and he spent the late 1960's refining the vaccine and establishing the scientific principles behind it.

Exhibits & Events

"National Poetry Month Exhibit."

  • April 1 - April 30
  • Seuss Room foyer, Geisel Library.
  • For more information:
  • Webpage.

"Library Chimes Exhibit."

  • April 28 - June 30
  • Geisel West, 2nd floor.
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"San Diego Book Arts Exhibit."

  • May 4 - June 22
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"Porrajmos: The Romanies and the Holocaust with Ian Hancock."

  • May 4, 5:00 to 6:30 p.m.
  • Holocaust Living History Workshop.
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Domain Editor

Dolores Davies

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