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Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk


Dr. Jonas Salk, M.D. was a Medical researcher and author, the inventor of the Salk vaccine against Polio, and the founder of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.


  • Edward R. Murrow: Who owns the patent on this vaccine?
    Jonas Salk: Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?
    • CBS Television interview, on See It Now (12 April 1955); quoted in Shots in the Dark : The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine (2001) by Jon Cohen

  • It is courage based on confidence, not daring, and it is confidence based on experience.
    • On testing his vaccine against polio on himself, his wife, and his three sons (9 May 1955)

  • I feel that the greatest reward for doing is the opportunity to do more.
    • On receiving Congressional Medal for Distinguished Civilian Achievement (23 April 1956); several variations of this personal motto are often quoted, including:
      • The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.
        • As quoted in 50 American Heroes Every Kid Should Meet! (2001) by Dennis Denenberg and Lorraine Roscoe, p. 99
    • I feel that the greatest reward for success is the opportunity to do more.

  • Why did Mozart compose music?
    • Response when asked why he chose to do medical research rather than be a practicing physician, as quoted in The Polio Man : The Story of Dr. Jonas Salk (1961) by John Rowland, p. 23

  • Nothing happens quite by chance. It's a question of accretion of information and experience ... it's just chance that I happened to be here at this particular time when there was available and at my disposal the great experience of all the investigators who plodded along for a number of years.
    • As quoted in Breakthrough : The Saga of Jonas Salk (1966) by Richard Carter

  • Neither wisdom nor good will is now dominant. Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.
    • Address on receiving the Nehru Award (10 January 1977), published in Virginia Woolf Quarterly (1977), Vol. 3, p. 11; also quoted in The Signs of Language Revisited : An Anthology to Honor Ursula Bellugi and Edward Klima (2000) edited by Karen Emmorey and Harlan L. Lane, p. 330; the last sentence is Inscribed in metallic lettering at the entrance of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California.

  • Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.
    • As quoted in Learning from the Future : Competitive Foresight Scenarios (1998) by Liam Fahey and Robert M. Randall, p. 332

  • I have dreams, and I have nightmares. I overcame the nightmares because of my dreams.
    • As quoted in Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing (2006) by Larry Chang

The Open Mind interview (1985)

"Jonas Salk, “A Wise and Good Ancestor" interview with Richard D. Heffner on The Open Mind (11 May 1985)

  • I have the impression that the new generation of young people, are coming up on the scene with a sense "ancestorhood", and with more wisdom than was evident before. I think this comes about as a matter of necessity — Almost as if there is something in us that is innate, something inherent in us, that is destined for a longer term, rather than a shorter term future.

  • What is … important is that we — number one: Learn to live with each other. Number two: try to bring out the best in each other. The best from the best, and the best from those who, perhaps, might not have the same endowment. And so this bespeaks an entirely different philosophy — a different way of life — a different kind of relationship — where the object is not to put down the other, but to raise up the other.

  • When things get bad enough, then something happens to correct the course. And it is that sense I speak of evolution as an error-making and error-correctiong process. And if we can be ever so much better — ever so much slightly better — at error correcting than at error making, then we'll make it.

  • As a bio-philosopher — someone who draws upon the scriptures of nature, recognizing that we are the product of the process of evolution, and in a sense, we have become the process itself — through the emergence and evolution of our consciousness, our awareness, our capacity to imagine and to anticipate the future.
    • Responding to a question of whether he holds his views as a philosopher or as a biologist.

  • Richard Heffner: You say "We can create ourselves and our future"
    Salk: — by shaping our selves not our cells — thats the important distinction. … We are shaping our cells, but we will not change our selves in the course of shaping our cells.

  • I look upon ourselves as partners in all of this, and that each of us contributes and does what he can do best. And so I see not a top rung and a bottom rung — I see all this horizontally — and I see this as part of a matrix. And I see every human being as having a purpose, a destiny, if you like. And what my hope is that we can find some way to fulfill the biological potential, if you like — the destiny that exists in each of us — and find ways and means to provide such opportunities for everyone. Now at the moment the world is suffering from large numbers of people who have no purpose in life — for whom there is no opportunity — and that's sad.

  • There is something about human nature that has to be understood, and so … I've shifted my attention from an interest in unity to an interest in creativity.

  • I already see enough evidence for this optimism … in recent years I find that perhaps what Im seeking is a scientific basis for hope, and I think I've found it.

Academy of Achievement interview (1991)

Interview in San Diego, California (1991-05-16)

  • As a child I was not interested in science. I was merely interested in things human, the human side of nature, if you like, and I continue to be interested in that. That's what motivates me.

  • I was told I could, if I wished, switch and get a Ph.D. in biochemistry but my preference was to stay with medicine. And I believe that this is all linked to my original ambition, or desire, which was to be of some help to humankind, so to speak, in a larger sense than just on a one-to-one basis. Just as I intended to study law, to make just laws, so I found myself interested now in the laws of nature, as distinct from the laws the people make.

  • Some people are constructive, if you like. Others are destructive. It's this diversity in humankind that results in some making positive contributions and some negative contributions. It's necessary to have enough who make positive contributions to overcome the problems of each age.

  • We were told in one lecture that it was possible to immunize against diphtheria and tetanus by the use of chemically treated toxins, or toxoids. And the following lecture, we were told that for immunization against a virus disease, you have to experience the infection, and that you could not induce immunity with the so-called "killed" or inactivated, chemically treated virus preparation. Well, somehow, that struck me. What struck me was that both statements couldn't be true. And I asked why this was so, and the answer that was given was in a sense, 'Because.' There was no satisfactory answer.

  • Why do I see things differently from the way other people see them? Why do I pursue the questions that I pursue, even if others regard them as, as they say, "controversial?" Which merely means that they have a difference of opinion. They see things differently. I am interested both in nature, and in the human side of nature, and how the two can be brought together, and effectively used.

  • Risks, I like to say, always pay off. You learn what to do, or what not to do.

  • My attitude was always to keep open, to keep scanning. I think that's how things work in nature. Many people are close-minded, rigid, and that's not my inclination.

  • There are three stages of truth. First is that it can't be true, and that's what they said. You couldn't immunize against polio with a killed-virus vaccine. Second phase: they say, "Well, if it's true, it's not very important. And the third stage is, 'Well, we've known it all along."

  • You have to develop a thick skin in life. Its not in this field only. You might think of the ideal of the scientists, the ivory tower, the idealist. That's true of some. And I wouldn't guess as to what proportion. But there are some who are of that character, and there are some who are not.

  • Now, some people might look at something and let it go by, because they don't recognize the pattern and the significance. It's the sensitivity to pattern recognition that seems to me to be of great importance. It's a matter of being able to find meaning, whether it's positive or negative, in whatever you encounter. It's like a journey. It's like finding the paths that will allow you to go forward, or that path that has a block that tells you to start over again or do something else.

  • You can have a team of unconventional thinkers, as well as conventional thinkers. If you don't have the support of others you cannot achieve anything altogether on your own. It's like a cry in the wilderness. In each instance there were others who could see the same thing, and there were others who could not. It's an obvious difference we see in those who you might say have a bird's eye view, and those who have a worm's eye view. I've come to realize that we all have a different mind set, we all see things differently, and that's what the human condition is really all about.

  • Since whatever we do has to be part of a team, part of a community, we have to attempt to bring together those who have the same conviction, see the same things. Then it becomes a matter of time, when one or the other will prevail. Fortunately, there is all this diversity, and if not for that, problems would not be solved.

  • The evolvers are people who cause things to change. The maintainers of the status quo do everything to keep things from changing. And, there I see differences of perception. Differences in vision. Differences in interpretation, and differences in temperament, in personality. The number of evolvers are much fewer than the maintainers of the status quo. And amongst the evolvers, there are some who are initiators, some who go along with what other people recognize to be new or different.

  • I have come to associate a kind of success that we are referring to, to individuals who have a combination of attributes that are often associated with creativity. In a way they are mutants, they are different from others. And they follow their own drummer. We know what that means. And are we all like that? We are not like that. If you are, then it would be well to recognize that there were others before you. And, people like that are not very happy or content, until they are allowed to express, or they can express what's in them to express. It's that driving force that I think is like the process of evolution working on us, and in us, and with us, and through us. That's how we continue on, and will improve our lot in life, solve the problems that arise. Partly out of necessity, partly out of this drive to improve.

  • Reason alone will not serve. Intuition alone can be improved by reason, but reason alone without intuition can easily lead the wrong way. They both are necessary. The way I like to put it is that when I have an intuition about something, I send it over to the reason department. Then after I've checked it out in the reason department, I send it back to the intuition department to make sure that it's still all right. That's how my mind works, and that's how I work. That's why I think that there is both an art and a science to what we do. The art of science is as important as so-called technical science. You need both. It's this combination that must be recognized and acknowledged and valued.

  • I am interested in a phase that I think we are entering. I call it "teleological evolution," evolution with a purpose. The idea of evolution by design, designing the future, anticipating the future. I think of the need for more wisdom in the world, to deal with the knowledge that we have. At one time we had wisdom, but little knowledge. Now we have a great deal of knowledge, but do we have enough wisdom to deal with that knowledge?

  • What you see in living systems, and in genetic systems, is that the genes are already there, having arisen in the course of time, and when they are needed they become activated. If they had to be invented, the time would be too late. By the same token, I think that the people who are needed to help guide the future already exist. They simply need to recognize this in themselves, react to the opportunities that prevail, and also be valued and be encouraged. It's that very large, and as yet amorphous, rung that is of interest to me. I hope to articulate this, and see to what extent it makes sense to others as well.

  • The first thing I would like to point out is that each of us have a different purpose that we have to serve in the evolutionary scheme of things. We are not all equally endowed to do everything. When I speak about teleological evolution, I speak about the idea of "telos," purpose.

  • Know what is the purpose of life that you are inclined to serve, that you are drawn to. Do what makes your heart leap rather than simply follow some style or fashion. Not everyone can or should be a scientists. Not everyone can or should be any one thing. People need to know what kind of purpose they can serve.

  • The idea of being constructive, creative, positive, in trying to bring out the best in one's own self and the best in others follows from what I've just been saying. Again, I repeat my belief in us, in ourselves, as the product of the process of evolution, and part of the process itself. I think of evolution as an error-making and error-correcting process, and we are constantly learning from experience. It's the need to dedicate one's self in that way, to one's own self, and to choose an activity or life that is of value not only to yourself but to others as well.

  • My life is pretty well at peace, and the profession is more of an avocation. It's a calling, if you like, rather than a job. I do what I feel impelled to do, as an artist would. Scientists function in the same way. I see all these as creative activities, as all part of the process of discovery. Perhaps that's one of the characteristics of what I call the evolvers, any subset of the population who keep things moving in a positive, creative, constructive way, revealing the truth and beauty that exists in life and in nature.

  • I see weeds and flowers. I think of it in those terms, and we have to discriminate and distinguish between the two, to recognize and encourage those human qualities and attributes that are the more positive.

  • I judge things from an evolutionary perspective — "How does this serve and contribute to the process of our own evolution?" — rather than think of good and evil in moral terms. I see the triumph of good over evil as a manifestation of the error-correcting process of evolution.

  • I speak about universal evolution and teleological evolution, because I think the process of evolution reflects the wisdom of nature. I see the need for wisdom to become operative. We need to try to put all of these things together in what I call an evolutionary philosophy of our time.

Quotes about Salk

  • Young man, a great tragedy has befallen you. You have lost your anonymity.
    • Edward R. Murrow, after the results of Salk's experiments were published, as quoted in Heroes for Our Times‎ (1968) edited by Will H. Yolen and Kenneth Seeman Giniger, p. 71

External links