Jonas Salk: A Life

Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, Oxford University Press, 559 pages, $34.95

The 1910s were not always kind to New York. In mid-1916, the city faced a polio epidemic that killed a baby every 2 ½ hours. Hospitals were full, and paralysis left many survivors in wheelchairs, on crutches or bedridden for life. Two years later, a vicious form of influenza killed over 33,000 New Yorkers.

Jonas Salk, born in 1914 in a tenement in the city, was spared. In her biography of the man who developed the first polio vaccine and played a major role in developing the first flu vaccine, Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, a professor emeritus of medicine at Stanford University, weaves together intimate and historical details. She paints a picture of a sensitive, genuinely kind idealist who pursued what he thought was right with gentle but unrelenting tenacity.

The first half is a fascinating — and at times nauseating — tour of vaccine-making's past: myriad monkeys sacrificed gruesomely on the altar of science, zealous researchers drinking minced rat brain teeming with polio to prove the concoction could vaccinate and inmates of mental asylums deliberately infected with influenza.

In 1955, Salk won the race to develop an effective polio vaccine, using a version containing poliovirus killed by chemicals. He beat the scientists promoting live-virus vaccines, most prominent among them Albert Sabin, who would remain Salk's caustic nemesis. Asked why he did not get a Nobel Prize, Salk replied: "Everybody thinks I got it. So that's fine."