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Jonas Salk

Author Shelley Fraser Mickle
Air Date 10/28/1999

Jonas Salk Transcript

Here is Shelley Fraser Mickle with a remembering for us.

Today is Jonas Salk’s birthday. He would be eighty-five if he were still with us. His life and mine were interwoven, though we never met. On the day I was born in 1944, he was a young physician doing research on developing a flu vaccine. After all the influenza epidemic that broke out at the end of World War I had killed six million people. In fact, one of them was my grandfather who was only 27 and whom I never got to meet. Jonas Salk’s research on the flu virus naturally led him into researching the polio virus. It was believed that polio might be caused by as many as 196 different viruses, which would make developing a vaccine against it immensely complicated. But in 1951, Jonas Salk announced with certainty that only three viruses caused it.

All through the 1940’s and early 50’s, every August, an average of 50,000 children were diagnosed with polio. Why more contracted it in August, no one knows. Why pregnant women and children who had had tonsillectomies were more predisposed to it, no one knows either.

By 1950, Dr. Salk had developed a killed virus vaccine which he was eager to test, but could find no population on which to do so. Instead, he tried it on himself, on members of his lab, and on his own children, which eventually led to the vaccine being available to our whole nation by 1954.

Sometimes I wish my last name had been Salk, or that I was working in his lab in 1950 and had been part of his test. For only a few weeks after I had started the first grade in a tiny cotton town in Arkansas, I came down with a mystery virus that, after a few days, was named polio. I was whisked to Memphis to spend the next three months in an isolation hospital. I also ended up missing the rest of the first grade, which has become a handy excuse for why I can’t spell.

It never entered my mind that there was any physical difference to me at all until one day, after admiring an organ grinder I’d seen in Memphis, I stood out on my little cotton town Main Street with a toy music box and a stuffed monkey on my shoulder. So many people put money in my cup that I could have paid my family’s light bill for years. My mother pointed out that i was getting rich not because of my music ability but because of my steel braces that looked just like the ones on all those poster children who raised money too. The one thing I resented most was that I had to give up the best way I’d ever found to get rich quick.

Thirty years later, I began weaving the psychic spin-off of my childhood into my first novel, The Queen of October, where a young character also finds that she is in a world that takes an unexpected turn. Part of the strength of who I am today is rooted in my childhood, just as Dr. Jonas Salk’s life will always be defined by the millions of childhoods he helped save. In fact, all children today will never need to wish, as I do, that they’d known him sooner.


Posted in Culture, Stories