Dr. Jonas Salk was sitting in a community park in Pittsburgh, where he had lived and worked since the fall of 1947. He was employed by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where he led a research lab. The lab however, was nothing like what he had anticipated. It was a small, unequipped space in the basement of the Municipal Hospital.
It had been a long 6 years for Salk. Not only had he worked hard to secure extra funding for instruments and resources for his lab where he studied virology, but he had also joined a nationwide push to find a cure for the feared Polio disease.
He had previously helped a team at the University of Michigan School of Public Health find a strain of the flu virus and provide a cure in the final flu vaccine. Partly due to this work, the director of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later called the March of Dimes), had personally asked him to join the search for a cure. Salk had quickly agreed, though it would be a long, costly process.
Now as he was sitting at the park watching kids play, he smiled. They are happy running around and playing, he thought to himself. Then he thought back to all the children he had seen in hospital beds, some would die, thousands more would be paralyzed.
Salk shook his head and looked down. The number of confirmed Polio patients was estimated to be nearly 50,000 that year, higher than ever before. Families were more worried about Polio than any other disease. It was almost as scary as an atomic bomb threat.
Polio could be prevented. It must be prevented, he thought.
Salk rubbed his eyes. He had worked almost nonstop for the last year because he thought they were getting closer, but how long could he keep it up.
Again he thought of the kids in metal framed beds with white sheets over them, facing a future that may be void of running, skipping or even walking.
“As long as it takes,” he said to himself.
It would take another year of 16-hour days, seven days a week, before Salk’s was able to release a vaccine for Polio on April 12, 1955, that would cut the number of Polio patients from more than 37,000 victims in 1954 to 917 in 1962.
When asked by Ed Murrow, “Who owns the patent?” He said, ” No one. Could you patent the sun?”
Salk had recognized it belonged to the people of the world as it had taken hundreds of thousands of volunteers, millions of donated dollars and a collective will to conquer the disease. But Salk also believed from a young age that he would help human kind, not on a one-on-one basis as a doctor, but in a large-scale way as a scientist.
“There are two types of medical specialists. There are those who fight disease day and night, who assist mankind in times of despair and agony and who preside over the awesome events of life and death. Others work in the quiet detachment of the laboratory; their names are often unknown to the general public, but their research may have momentous consequences.” Dr. Jonas Salk.
Dr. Salk would be known the world over very quickly after the release of the Polio vaccine, but that wasn’t his goal. He was trying to eradicate a disease that was crippling and killing thousands across the world. True greatness isn’t measured by how many people know your name, but by how many you can impact for good. No matter what you do, you can look to serve those around you and improve their lives. That’s when you find the motivation to exceed expectations, and do your best work.
Who will you serve this week?