When Jewish scientist Jonas Salk first invented his polio vaccine, he was celebrated as a miracle worker by the international community.

Salk’s rise to fame was an unlikely one, though. Born to Jewish parents in New York City, Salk stood out among classmates not just for his astute mind, but for the minimal education his parents had received when they themselves were young.

Upon completing his undergraduate studies at City College in New York when he was only a teenager, Salk enrolled in medical school at New York University’s School of Medicine. Here, Salk cut away from the grain, choosing the path of medical research as opposed to the more common medical practice career.

Salk’s studies included extensive attention to biochemistry and bacteriology, paving the way for what would become one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century.

Polio has often been described as the worst disease of the postwar era. It’s been said that aside from the atomic bomb, the crippling disease was America’s greatest fear. With a president famously suffering from the affliction, a need to cure the growing problem became more and more pressing.

In 1947, Salk took a position with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, which led to an appointment by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis the following year.

Salk was tasked with determining how many variations of the polio virus existed, but the scientist wanted to take the project further. He made it his personal mission to develop a vaccine.

The work took seven years, but Salk was eventually successful. After initiating trials involving nearly two million children, news was made public on April 12, 1955 that an effective virus against polio had indeed been created.

Salk became a national hero, but he didn’t rest on his laurels. In 1960 he established the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California, which remains today a stalwart center for medical research.

Salk died on June 23, 1995, at the age of 80. His last years were spent dedicated to finding a vaccine for HIV/AIDS.

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