Dr. Peter Salk was just 9 in May of 1953 when his father, Dr. Jonas Salk, came home with glass syringes and needles, which he boiled on the stove, and then lined up his three sons and wife to give them a then-experimental polio vaccine. The vaccine trials had not yet begun on a wider scale.
“I hated injections,” said Peter Salk, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. “And the thing that marked that occasion in my mind … that day, the needle must have just missed all the nerves. I didn’t feel it. And then that’s just sort of frozen that experience in my mind. I can see being there in the kitchen, the kitchen table, the light coming in the window and so on.”
The creation and rollout of the vaccine is explored in the University of Pittsburgh’s Jonas Salk Legacy exhibit, which opened on April 28 to celebrate the legacy of the Jewish physician and the 75th anniversary of the Pitt School of Public Health. Materials were donated by the Salk family.
The creation of the polio vaccine is a uniquely Pittsburgh story, starting with Jonas Salk’s work in a University of Pittsburgh laboratory and extending to the 1954 clinical trials. A plaque in the exhibit lists the many Pittsburgh elementary schools where thousands of students were inoculated before the vaccine was deemed safe for widespread use in 1955. Next to the plaque is a consent form that parents signed before the vaccination.
In addition to the materials used in the exhibit, Pitt’s library acquired a vast collection of papers spanning Salk’s career. As part of the collection, the library has the signed consent forms from participants of the Pittsburgh school trials, which are available to the participants by contacting the library.
Several Pitt students were involved in curating the exhibit. Maggie Shaheen, a senior and Philadelphia native, said the work got her interested in Pittsburgh history.
“I’m from the other side of the state of Pennsylvania, and local history never really interested me much there,” she said. “But in Pittsburgh, I find that the local history is really interesting.”
One of the most eye-catching features of the exhibit is an iron lung donated by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, a research institute founded by Salk in 1960. The iron lung serves as a sobering reminder of the treatment options available. A giant mechanical cylinder, the iron lung breathed for patients whose respiratory muscles were paralyzed by polio.
Lily Heistand, a senior who worked on the exhibit, said what impacted her most was the iron lung and “seeing the detrimental way that this virus would just harm these kids’ bodies, and they had to be in this machine just to survive, and how Jonas Salk prevented that happening to so many other kids.”
Pieces of lab equipment came from the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, where Jonas and Peter Salk worked together.
“The incubator that’s there, I’m pretty sure is the one that I used,” Peter Salk said. “It was right next to my laboratory bench. So, all of these things have, you know, a reality and a tangibility to them that to me, I find really, really moving.”
Also coming from La Jolla is Jonas Salk’s desk, which sat in his office in Pittsburgh before moving with him to California in 1965. The desk is protected with a glass sheet and visitors are invited to sit where Salk once sat. Displayed above the desk are a plethora of awards that Salk received for his work, including an American Hero award from Disneyland.
Pitt School of Public Health Vice Dean Jessica Burke hopes that the exhibit will inspire students and visitors to consider a career in public health.
“I want [visitors] to have a better understanding of public health initiatives, vaccination, how important it is for the prevention of disease and the key role that public health plays in many efforts,” she said.
A few quotes from Jonas Salk are spread throughout the exhibit, but Burke said one, in particular, is meaningful to her.
“Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality,” Salk said in an acceptance speech for the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding.
Peter Salk said that speech was an extension of his father’s work and philosophy, which continues today with the Salk Institute and work fighting cancer and climate change, among other areas of research.
“The acceptance speech that he wrote for that is, it’s a really condensed view version of his overarching thinking about humanity,” Peter Salk said. “And the title of it is haunting to me, which is, ‘Are We Being Good Ancestors?’”
The Jonas Salk Legacy Exhibit is free and open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health on 130 De Soto St. in Oakland. PJC
Abigail Hakas can be reached at email@example.com.