Jonas Salk and Antisemitism
When President Dwight Eisenhower invited Jonas Salk — who discovered the polio vaccine — to the White House, the president reportedly choked back tears of gratitude. The polls indicated that “apart from the atomic bomb, America’s greatest fear was polio.”
Salk — the Jewish doctor in a lab coat — entered America’s pantheon with Mickey Mantle, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. The Jonas Salk Ward of Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Hospital was named after him.
Yet Salk denied that his Jewish origins had anything to do with his achievements, and also dismissed concerns about “religious discrimination.”
Salk, in fact, was brought up in the East Bronx. His mother hailed from Minsk, his father from Lithuania. The family kept kosher but was otherwise non-observant. A hard-working boy — whose heroes were Moses and Lincoln — he yearned for academic success. He reportedly had an unassuming personality in an era when Jews were not supposed to be “pushy.” Yet Salk was accused by the scientific community of not sharing credit for the vaccine.
Whether or not he admitted it, Salk’s Jewish origins shaped his career. His mentor at NYU’s medical school, Thomas Francis, Jr., an infectious disease specialist, pulled strings to get his protégé — “a member of the Jewish race” — a fellowship at the University of Michigan. There, he won the admiration of Basil O’Connor, president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, known as the March of Dimes. After World War II, Salk, then at the University of Pittsburgh, competed to develop a polio vaccine with Dr. Albert Sabin, another “Jewish boy” from New York. Salk’s “dead virus” vaccine was the initial winner, though later Sabin’s “live virus” vaccine eclipsed it.
Salk wanted his own research institute in California. His first preference was Palo Alto, but his friend, physicist Leo Szilard, joined Roger Revelle of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to convince him to choose San Diego’s exclusive seaside community of La Jolla.
The problem was that La Jolla contrived to maintain antisemitic restrictive covenants even after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) that such covenants could not be legally enforced.
Married to a Scripps newspaper heiress, Revelle lectured the La Jolla Real Estate Brokers’ Association that the realtors could either accept Jews or lose their chance at the new branch of the University of California (UCSD). Some still preferred to keep out Jews — even at the cost of a university campus and Salk Institute. But Revelle prevailed.
The Salk Institute became the home of Nobel Prize winners in science, a prize that eluded Salk.
Born a few years before 1918’s Spanish Flu, Jonas Salk died in 1995 in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. By then, anti-Jewish restrictive covenants were as defunct as polio.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).