No disease has captured the emotions of the American public or struck as much terror in the hearts of parents as polio. It came every summer, like locusts. It killed some children and paralyzed others, leaving vivid reminders for all to see: young victims in wheelchairs, leg braces and iron lungs.
It’s 1947 and Dr. Jonas Salk arrives in Pittsburgh to head the University’s research lab. Salk is a loner who carries the peculiar weight of a childhood marked by his mother’s unshakable belief that he has been put on earth to do something good for humanity. But now he is stranded in Pittsburgh, a medical backwater. “Hell with the lid off” – an apocalyptic industrial landscape dotted with steel mills, where blast furnaces spew flames day and night. A place so polluted, Jonas has to wipe the cinders from his desk every morning.
With few prospects and no funds, he travels to a polio conference attended by the top scientists in the country. The quest for a vaccine has virtually ground to a halt. Ten years earlier, healthy children had been injected with an experimental vaccine... and got polio. Hundreds were paralyzed. Scores died. Scientists would rather study the disease, predicting that a safe vaccine is decades away.
Not Jonas. He sees children dying in the polio ward every day. He wants a vaccine now. He discovers that he can take live, dangerous poliovirus and kill it with a chemical in such a way that it tricks the body into producing an immune response which will prevent the disease.
This is political dynamite – it flies in the face of everything that is known about vaccines. When Jonas shares his promising lead with his colleagues, he hits a brick wall. These scientists are all competing for the same research dollars. They don’t want to be upstaged by someone they consider a lightweight, a ‘kitchen scientist.’ Leading the opposition is the formidable Dr. Albert Sabin, a velvet switchblade -- never short of sharp words to cut you with. Sabin has spent years working on his own vaccine and is afraid Jonas is going to beat him to the punch and run off with the prize. This sparks a furious race for the vaccine.
Jonas appears ill-equipped. He is not conditioned for the vicious politics. He is younger, less experienced than the other scientists. And now he is pitted against men who have won Nobel Prizes. But beneath Jonas’s soft-spoken facade lies tremendous willpower. He has the strategic acuity to sidestep political land mines. He is well-organized. He knows how to pound out an infrastructure and run dozens of experiments at the same time, unlike his colleagues who work on a much smaller scale.
And he knows how to make allies especially Basil O’Connor, a flashy Wall Street lawyer turned philanthropist and former law partner of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Together they start the March of Dimes, the most successful philanthropic organization of its time, which gives out millions for polio research.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Every day Jonas Salk spends improving the vaccine is a day that a hundred more children in the United States get polio. The number of victims spikes at more than 50,000 in 1952. At the same time, Jonas knows… one slip, one mistake, one child gets sick from his vaccine and he is finished. His reputation destroyed.
When infamous gossip columnist Walter Winchell spreads fear about the safety of the vaccine, Jonas not only defends it on a CBS broadcast, but inoculates himself, his wife and their three children.
Jonas Salk finally gets the green light to test his experimental vaccine in a huge national field trial: 1.8 million children are to be injected. Thousands of doctors and nurses volunteer. Children across the nation line up in gymnasiums and school libraries to get the shot in what remains the largest field trial in medical history.
It takes a year to analyze the results. The trial’s administrators tell Jonas nothing. For all of his confidence, he cannot possibly know that not one child will contract polio from his vaccine. The results are to be announced on April 12, 1955. Newspapermen and photographers turn out from around the world. A CBS broadcast beams the event live across the nation.
Jonas holds his breath. When the vaccine is declared safe, potent and effective, the news spreads like wildfire. Church bells ring. Factory whistles go off. Children pour into the streets in celebration. It’s as if a war has ended. And, in a way, a war has ended. Jonas Salk is catapulted into the rank of international hero. As the man who ran the lab, rallied the troops and inspired public confidence, Jonas Salk is the scientist who sees beyond the microscope.