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Jonas Salk, the People’s Scientist 

Algis Valiunas

At the age of forty, Jonas Salk became the most beloved scientist in America. He was probably the most beloved scientist the world has ever seen. Einstein may have been more famous, but very few understood what he had done. He was much loved, but in the way hobbits or leprechauns are loved, fancifully, as a bearer of benign, alien magic. J. Robert Oppenheimer was as famous as Salk, and millions were grateful for what he did, yet his achievement also made him notorious — downright malignant in the eyes of many, the malignancy growing as the monstrosity of Imperial Japan has receded from public memory. But everyone knew and understood what Jonas Salk had done with the vaccine for paralytic poliomyelitis that bears his name, and everyone loved him for it unreservedly, with the exception of a good many other scientists, who were grossly outnumbered by the adoring multitude.

In the United States during the early 1950s, according to Paul Offit’s book The Cutter Incident, a public opinion poll showed that the fear of polio ran second only to the fear of nuclear megadeath. Such polling results reflect in part the public relations skills of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. In 1952, the year of a large polio epidemic that killed over three thousand people, ten times as many died from pneumonia and seventy times as many from cancer. Nevertheless, there was reason enough for widespread fear of polio. At a time when the risk posed by many of the most deadly infectious diseases, such as syphilis, tuberculosis, and bacterial pneumonia, had lately been radically reduced by antibiotics, most viral infections, such as polio, remained unstoppable. The incidence of polio had been on an upward trend through the 1940s; each new summer brought an epidemic, and most of the casualties were children and adolescents.

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Algis Valiunas is a New Atlantis contributing editor and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Algis Valiunas, "Jonas Salk, the People’s Scientist," The New Atlantis, Number 56, Summer/Fall 2018, pp. 99-128.