How Pitt is Honoring Jonas Salk’s Legacy
A free public exhibit features historic items gifted by Salk’s sons, 70 years after he developed the polio vaccine in Pittsburgh.
Transport to Jonas Salk’s laboratory in the 1950s and sense the urgency surrounding the development of the world’s first polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health.
The Jonas Salk Legacy Exhibit at 130 De Soto St. in Oakland showcases historical laboratory equipment, documents and photographs of Salk and his team developing and testing the vaccine in Pittsburgh, thanks to a gift from Salk’s sons — Peter L. Salk, a professor of infectious diseases and microbiology at Pitt Public Health; Darrell J. Salk; and Jonathan D. Salk.
Salk’s sons were among the early trial participants, vaccinated in 1953.
“It’s a real pleasure to see these historical materials on display at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health and in the care of the University Library System,” said Peter Salk, also president of the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation, in a Pitt press release. “My father would be very happy seeing the story told by these items of laboratory equipment, awards, newspapers and documents that have been so carefully preserved for all these decades, and that have now returned ‘back home’ to Pittsburgh.”
Jonas Salk, a virologist and medical researcher, became an associate professor of bacteriology and head of the virus research laboratory at Pitt in 1947. At Pitt, the influenza expert began researching polio, an acute viral infectious disease of the nervous system that can lead to paralysis in one or more limbs, the throat or chest. At the time, polio was killing or paralyzing more than 500,000 people across the globe each year, particularly children and young adults.
After Salk and his team conducted successful field tests on the vaccine and determined it was safe and effective, it was released for use in the U.S. on April 12, 1955 — 68 years ago this month. In 1963, he became fellow and director of the Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, later called the Salk Institute. He died on June 23, 1995, at age 80.
The exhibit begins in the ground-floor lobby of the School of Public Health with original objects and photographs and continues to the Commons area with an interactive exhibit showcasing Salk’s mid-century office desk. Students are invited to study at the desk, surrounded by Salk’s awards and accolades after developing the vaccine, such as his Presidential Medal of Freedom citation (1977) and a special recognition from Disneyland.
“We profoundly thank the Salk family for sharing Jonas Salk’s legacy with the University of Pittsburgh during the School of Public Health’s 75th anniversary year,” said Dr. Maureen Lichtveld, Pitt Public Health dean and Jonas Salk Professor of Population Health.
The idea for the exhibit came from conversations between Peter and Pitt Public Health’s former dean Donald S. Burke.
More than 10 years ago, Peter invited Burke to visit one of the storage facilities containing lab equipment and documents Jonas Salk took with him to California when he left Pitt.
“Opening the boxes was a dream come true,” said Burke, distinguished university professor of health science and policy and epidemiology at Pitt Public Health. “I was a child when Jonas Salk and his team here at Pitt developed the polio vaccine. I clearly recall the celebration when we were finally free from the fear of polio. Salk became a scientist-hero to my generation, and I’m delighted to bring his legacy back to Pittsburgh where it will inspire future generations of health professionals.”
Burke and a group of Pitt Public Health student assistants partnered with Alex Taylor, associate professor in the Department of History of Art & Architecture at Pitt, and a team of undergraduate museum studies students, to sort through the laboratory equipment to curate items of historical significance for display.
Two large centrifuges, an incubator, glass flasks and other items mirror a 1950s laboratory scene, positioned near a tank respirator — or “iron lung” — that would encase people with severe polio to help them breathe.
“It was important to us that the exhibit do more than showcase equipment,” said Taylor. “We want the objects to help viewers imagine the urgency that propelled Salk’s lab in the 1950s. By placing the iron lung near the lab equipment, we recall the former Pittsburgh Municipal Hospital where vaccine development progressed on one floor while polio patients were treated with iron lungs on another.”
The Salk gift also includes his research papers from 1947 to 1995, newspaper articles and research files, including consent forms and vaccination cards from Pittsburgh school children who served as early trial participants, known as “polio pioneers.” These artifacts are being managed and preserved by archivists with the University Library System.
“These records are a tangible testament to the role that thousands of Pittsburgh school children — who are now in their late 70s and early 80s — played in setting the world on a path to hopefully soon eradicate polio,” said Edward Galloway, M.L.I.S., associate university librarian for archives and special collections at the University Library System.
Polio was eradicated in the U.S. by 1979 (although new cases have been brought into the country by travelers) and it remains endemic in only two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pittsburgh Schools Trial participants can inquire about accessing their polio vaccine records by calling ULS Archives & Special Collections at 412-648-3232.
To view the Salk Legacy Exhibit, visit the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health ground floor lobby between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.