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Wednesday, May 30, 2012


By the 1950’s a plague had swept across America. It had been growing stronger for 30 years. It came in the form of a virus, an invisible killer of the young. Those whose life was not ended by the virus would be left paralyzed and deformed. It was called infantile paralysis, poliomyelitis, or simply as polio. Fifty thousand or more cases were being reported every year, and the number was rising.  Everyone knew a victim.
This is a story of two men who were dedicated to end this terrible disease.
Basil O’Connor knew the disease first hand. As a younger man, his best friend and law partner, Franklin Roosevelt, had contracted the virus. O’Connor had seen polio turn his athletic friend into a man unable to stand without braces. He was not a physician but his life’s goal was to fight this killer.
O’Connor became the president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and oversaw the distribution of millions of its contributor’s dollars to medical research teams. But he was not satisfied with what he saw. Traditional biological researchers were focusing on treatment and not on prevention. They were deliberate and slow. They followed well established research methodology without deviating. Many of their precepts were later proven incorrect. He wanted to find someone who shared his hatred for the disease and felt his urgency. He found one.
Jonas Salk was a young doctor; a child of Russian immigrants. He was, by his own admission, on the fringes of medical research. His methods did not conform to established protocols including the concept that an active virus could not be restrained by its own dead bodies. Salk believed differently. He once said, “I pictured myself as a virus or a cancer cell and tried to sense what it would be like.” He had always thought more as a humanist than a scientist.
The medical establishment contended that Salk was not really a scientist - only a technician. But O’Connor believed in him and began channeling research funds his way. Many scientists accused the young doctor of being a charlatan or at least a publicity hound. Medical research on polio was big business and Salk was seen as a competitor.
Jonas Salk was obsessed with finding a cure for polio. He worked independently around the clock, seven days a week. In April of 1955 an announcement was made, or maybe it was a miracle, that a vaccine had been discovered to prevent this disease. After completion of field testing, the media declared Salk’s vaccine as the most dramatic breakthrough in the history of medical research. He had achieved what top scientists and major laboratories could not. Salk and O’Connor were hailed as heroes.
Behind the scenes, some leading scientists tried to stop the distribution of his life-saving vaccine, which was proven to work well. They even refused to accept Salk into the National Academy of Science. Later, Salk was quoted as saying, “The worst tragedy that could have befallen me was my success. I knew right away that I was through, that I would be cast out.”
But he didn’t really care. He raised funds to build the Salk Institute for Biological Studies where he worked alongside young researchers to find a cure for the HIV virus. He died in 1995 without a breakthrough however. Today, researchers work in the laboratories Jonas Salk built developing new ways to fight cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s, cerebral palsy, MS, and Parkinson’s.
The final cure for polio was realized by the efforts of Basil O’Connor and Jonas Salk, two men dedicated to end the disease and save thousands of young people from a life of misery.

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