August 25, 1995

The Selling of a Scientist

A great discovery is a fact whose appearance in science gives rise to shining ideas, whose light dispels many obscurities and shows us new paths.

Claude Bernard(1813-1878)

On June 23, 1995 Jonas Salk died at the age of 80. His death brought back many memories about the man and his times.

A young politician named Franklin Delano Roosevelt went swimming in a lake at his family vacation home at Campobello Island, off the New Brunswick and Maine coast. Shortly thereafter, he developed a fever.The disease was poliomyelitis, then called infantile paralysis. It is a viral disease that left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down. That young politician went on to become president of the United States and served longer than any president in history. There have been innumerable books and articles about the man, some damning him and some praising him; but there is no question about the profound influence of FDR on his time, the nation and the world.

Around that time, there was an epidemic of polio and the virus seemed to be an exceptionally virulent strain that produced more paralysis than was usual. Ordinarily, polio is a mild, barely noticed disease; only 2% of the people who contract the disease show any significant symptoms at all.

Having a paralyzed president dramatized the disease far beyond its actual significance. Measles easily killed more children, as did the complications of several other viral diseases. But it was polio that people were terrified of, thanks to the publicity. It is analogous to the campaign of terror now in effect about breast cancer.

In 1937, under the leadership of Basil O'Connor, FDR's former law partner, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was developed to raise money for research into polio. O'Connor turned out to be the master fund raiser. The March of Dimes was a stroke of genius. A dime was a significant amount of money in those days, but was small enough so that a person could part with it without much stress. A large amount of money was collected, much of it in ten cent increments. This money was disbursed in the form of grants to scientists; particularly those who were searching for either a cure or a vaccine.

The National Foundation decided to fund an all out push toward developing a vaccine. They put a large amount of money at the disposal of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Salk was developing a vaccine made from killed polio virus, grown in tissue cultures of monkey kidney. Sabin was trying to produce a live virus vaccine, also by growing the virus in tissue culture. Both were in the process of testing their vaccines. Neither of these efforts represented a scientific breakthrough. Both techniques had been well tested in animal vaccines. The question asked at the time was whether the killed vaccine would produce as long lasting an immunity as was necessary. What these two workers were doing would be called "development." It excited the public, but left scientists unimpressed. There were other scientists working on the problem, but they were eclipsed by the almost unheard of publicity given to Salk.

For a variety of reasons, The Foundation decided to throw its full weight behind Salk. This might have related to the fact that Salk projected a nice-guy image, and Sabin was a very contentious and abrasive person.

When people asked me how come Salk didn't get the Nobel Prize, I answered was that he hadn't contributed anything of any consequence to medical science, even though his vaccine prevented polio and, as a consequence saved many lives and prevented much suffering.

Hyping a scientist like a popular singer rubbed many scientists the wrong way. No scientist had ever been sold to the public like Salk was. Nevertheless, The Foundation placed large amounts of money at Salk's disposal. One result was the Salk Institute, built in La Jolla, California. It was a monument to The March of Dimes, Salk, and Polio.

My parents lived in southern California, and I used to visit them. In the course of one of those visits, I decided to visit the Salk Institute. I am used to research institutes being functional, and cluttered with equipment and people -there is never enough space. There are rarely any frills. The Salk Institute was different. It looked like a temple. I wondered, as I stood in the elaborate courtyard, what archaeologists would say 10,000 years from now when they found the ruins; and they would find them because the structures were built to outlast the pyramids. The Salk Institute has to be the most elaborate and expensive temple to medical science ever constructed.The labs seemed virtually empty of people. One very famous scientist-philosopher had a gigantic office, out of which came book after book. Salk's office was suited to his station, being immense and elaborate. Salk himself was a very cordial person. At any rate, my mother was suitably impressed because I had talked with Salk -and we all love to impress our mothers.

I was a student in 1954, at the time the Salk vaccine came out. To save money, I bought the vaccine and injected my four kids with some vaccine made at Cutter Laboratories. Several days later, I found out that Cutter had screwed up a batch and some children who were given the vaccine developed paralytic polio. I watched my kids anxiously for several weeks. They were okay.

Seven years later the Sabin oral vaccine went on the market. Some wags called it the Anti-Salk vaccine. It was a great improvement over the Salk vaccine, and is still in use today. One drop of the vaccine in the mouth of a child confers lifelong immunity. You can't do much better than that, although there is a swine vaccine that can be administered by spraying it in the pig pens.

Soon polio became an extinct disease; something that will probably never happen with cancer. What was to become of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis? They couldn't just let that whole fund-raising organization just die, so they decided to continue in another area. Cancer was preempted by other fund raising organizations. Venereal diseases might have been a good one; one that might respond to an all-out effort to eradicate the diseases -but no! They decided to stick with the image of the smiling, devastatingly cute, crippled child. They now throw their efforts behind fighting birth defects. It is an important effort, but it will never eclipse those days of glory when they were collecting dimes -even though those dimes now have FDR's picture on them.

Next column

Return to the Medicine and Health Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page