A Scientist With A Conscience

Jonas Salk tested his polio vaccine on himself.

Editor’s Note: This article is the runner-up in the Fresh Ink For Teens and Jewish-American Hall of Fame writing contest. Nearly 30 contestants from around the country answered the following question: “Which Jewish-American do you most admire?" The runner-up receives a $100 cash prize and medal from the Jewish-American Hall of Fame.

In 1952, 58,000 cases of polio were reported. It was the most devastating of the polio epidemics that had struck the United States. Over 3,000 people died and thousands more were left in a state of paralysis. Fear had taken over the nation. Years later, Jonas Salk would emerge with a life-saving solution.

Jonas Salk was born in 1914 to a humble family in New York City. From a young age, he was a dedicated learner and was noticeably gifted. Salk joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1947 and took on a project by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to research the different types of polio. Through his work, he saw an opportunity to develop a cure. He eagerly assembled a team and began a fight to end the devastating disease.

Salk took charge of the team and worked tirelessly to develop the vaccine. By 1954, he began testing the vaccine on humans. Some of the first people to receive the vaccine were members of his own family, including himself. Salk risked his own life for the sake of others. He courageously experimented on himself to spare others the possible dangers of the vaccine.

Jonas Salk truly embodied the morality of Judaism. He cared about the well-being of others and devoted his life to them. As a Jew, he encountered anti-Semitism and was denied many opportunities. Despite the prejudices he faced, Salk stayed
true to his identity and never gave up on his aspirations. 

Salk demonstrated “pikuach nefesh,” a Hebrew term for the preservation of human life. Saving one’s life overrides any other religious law. When one is in danger, the other must do everything in his or her power to save that person. If saving someone means breaking a law of the Torah, one is allowed to break that law. In the Talmud, we learn that one is permitted to kill an aggressor in order to save the victim. Similarly, polio can be considered the aggressor and the people its victims. Jonas Salk took it upon himself and risked his own life to end polio for the greater good.

When I think of American-Jewish heroes, Jonas Salk is the first person to come to mind. As a young high school student looking towards the future, Jonas Salk is an inspiration. The wisdom Jonas Salk possessed was God-given, but his bravery was his choice. I, and my peers, can learn from his courage and choice.

author's bio: 
Olivia Mittman is a sophomore at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan.