Jonas Salk

Pierre Fontenot Thursday, July 5, 2018 Comments Off on Jonas Salk
Jonas Salk

Conversation with a young man, the crossroads of exiting high school, was like listening to myself talk, senior year of high school, same words I used, “I want to be rich.” If that wasn’t enough, he says it again, “Like really rich.”

So I say…“Ever heard of Jonas Salk?”  


Once Upon A Time… 

…there was a very terrible disease called polio. It hit every nation, every age, even got one of our U.S. Presidents, but it was particularly lethal to little children. Usually hit in the summer. Light cases, a little paralysis, medium cases, a lot of paralysis, and on the other end, two kinds of death, actual, or life in an iron lung…

They’ve got Egyptian pyramid carvings depicting polio. All those thousands of years, all those victims, and just last century, an American named Jonas Salk discovered the vaccine.

Yet Another Immigrant That Made America Great

It’s the classic immigrant tale: Momma from Russia, clutching for the climb, do your best, work like it matters, be frugal, mind your name, life is serious, be ambitious, get an education, better yourself. Jonas devoured books. He skipped grades, and because the Ivy League schools had quotas limiting Jewish enrollment, he can’t get into Yale, has to settle for City College of New York, at age 15.

Momma talks him out of being a lawyer. 

Thank goodness for that. 

He goes to med school. He talks himself out of being a practicing physician. He’s not wired for the one on one. He’s wired for the all.

Thank goodness for us all.

Apples To Oranges

For numbers, let’s compare polio to something that really shook us up in the 1980’s – AIDS.

If you were around, adult-ish, especially in the early years, you remember the national…whatstheword…it’s Fear, it’s Unknown, no escape from the national Uneasiness. 

In the 80’s, when Rock Hudson is dying, America is averaging about 7000 cases a year. That’s HIV, of which some will go into full AIDS, of which some will die. 

Most of these are adults.

Now, let’s go back to 1952, the worst polio epidemic in U.S. history, and the numbers change dramatically: it’s not 7000, it’s 58,000…of which over 3000 died…and over 21,000 would never be the same again…and it’s all concentrated in one summer. 

And…most of them were children.

If you’re a parent in the 50’s, whether upper class or no class, the boogie man is out there, and you don’t know how it finds your kid, how to protect them, nothing…

His Father In Law Thought His Daughter Was Marrying Down

Her daddy was a dentist. He thought Jonas was several rungs down on the social ladder, wouldn’t approve the marriage until Jonas had an M.D. to put on the wedding invites, and, (get ready, this is a doozie) had to come up with a middle name…because his daughter wasn’t tying the knot with a man whose family couldn’t afford a middle name…

Skipping a few years, Jonas Salk is in his element, running his own research lab, with one singular goal, a vaccine for polio.

He began testing his vaccine on animals in 1952. In 1954, he tested his vaccine on 1 million children, known as the Polio Pioneers. In April of 1955, the vaccine was announced safe.

The effects were immediate. Polio is defeated. Parents are relieved. And yet again, the eyes of the whole world are upon America, with respect, and a kind of awe, that this baby country keeps doing the things that make the whole planet better…

Jonas Salk is immediately one of the most famous citizens of the world.

He’s interviewed by the premier journalist of the times, Edward R. Murrow, who asks him, “Who owns this patent?”

(Let’s pause and put ourselves in Salk’s shoes. He’s put in years of nothing-but-work. He’s done a great thing. Would any parent pay a dollar, or five, or ten, or a week’s salary, or a months, to guarantee that their child would never get polio? Multiply that number, by all the parents, all over the world…

Jonas Salk could have financially soared, to become one of the wealthiest people on the planet, a Bill Gates before Microsoft, a Jeff Bezos before Amazon…)

…but when Murrow asks the question, Who owns the patent, listen to Salk…with awe…”There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

The dude gave it away. Like an angel would…

If I was wearing a hat while I was typing this, I’d take it off my head and put it over my heart. I swear. That’s high doing.      

Country Ways

In my rural childhood in Allen Parish neighbors always did favors for neighbors. Always a little dance, where the one being helped would reach for his wallet, as if he was going to offer money, and there began a big push back, from the person doing the favor, “O no! You’d do the same for me!”

It took me into young adulthood to understand it. The favor was The Value, The Wealth. To measure it with money, whether $10 or $100, only cheapened it. The favor being done, the gift of it, it was for honor, for ideals, God watching and self respect as head hit the pillow.

Time passes, a funeral happens, and these old men, they’d stand around, and they’d say, “O, he was a mighty good man…” no big speeches, but he’d planted good seeds of good deeds, and reaped respect, even if buried in a borrowed suit, he had gold plated his “name” with an earned wealth.

I moved off to the big city to realize what all that meant. City people narrow wealth to one measurement: dollars. They miss the whole width and depth of true wealth.

So I Tell The Youngster

“If Salk had taken the money, I’d never be mentioning his name.” He’d just be another noun in the encyclopedia, who whored his life’s great work, for common money.  

But because he didn’t… I actually took off my hat when I mentioned Salk’s name to this kid. There is a great, and rare wealth, in having earned awe. 

In one ear and out the other…or maybe a seed that sprouts in the fullness of time, I gave it a try…as I do now, with you…

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This edition of Uncle P’s Bedtime Stories is brought to you by Eighty-one, where we try to shine a light on things worthy of admiration.  Other Bedtime Stories can be found on the Eighty-one Facebook page.  Uncle P can be reached at

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