Jonas Salk on Searching for the Next Medical Miracle

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Jonas Salk was a young doctor when in the spring of 1955 he announced his discovery of a vaccine that could prevent polio. He was hailed as a modern miracle worker and recognized with a Presidential Medal of Freedom. He led scientists from the world over in studies of cancer, heredity, the brain, the immune system and AIDS at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California.

Life, Salk told Bill in this interview, is magic. Describing the magic of immunological memory, Salk said, “You vaccinate an individual, and they remember that experience. And so at some later time, if they’re exposed to the real enemy, they say, ‘I’ve seen you before.’ They respond appropriately and quickly.”

“I think solutions come through evolution. It comes through asking the right question, because the answer pre-exists. But it’s the question that we have to define and discover,” he said.

Salk died five years after this interview was broadcast. His memorial at the Salk Institute reads: “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”



Dr. Jonas Salk:: I think solutions come through evolution. It comes through asking the right question, because the answer pre-exists. But it’s the question that we have to define and discover.

Bill Moyers:: In this half hour, we’ll talk with Dr. Jonas Salk. I’m Bill Moyers.

Moyers: Until 1955, summer was polio season. Public swimming pools and playgrounds were closed and parents lived in fear their children would be stricken by the disease that could cripple — and sometimes kill.

But in the spring of that year came a startling announcement by a young doctor named Jonas Salk. He had discovered a vaccine that could prevent polio. It was a modern miracle and a grateful world showered Dr. Salk with honors. The recognition has continued through the years, including a joint resolution of Congress and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

With the assistance of the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation and other supporters, Jonas Salk fulfilled his dream of a facility devoted to biomedical research. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies overlooks the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, California. Scientists from all over the world gather to study cancer, heredity, the brain, the immune system and, more recently, the AIDS virus. I talked with Dr. Salk in his office at the institute.

How old were you when you came upon the vaccine?

Salk: I was 39.

Moyers: Your life hasn’t been anti-climactic, though, since that great breakthrough, has it?

Salk: Well, I’ve kept on going and I’ve continued to have the same purpose that I had then.

Moyers: Which is?

Salk: Which was to see what I could do to heal, to counter the negative forces. I was born in 1914. In 1916, there was the worst polio epidemic that occurred, until many years later. I was not aware at that time, but I was about four years of age when I saw lots of crippled children. And then there was war and I remember seeing troops coming back on Armistice Day of 1918, when I was in New York and seeing the parade. And I do recall, even as a very small child, being perplexed by seeing these wounded soldiers in the march. And I was aware of anti-Semitism in the world, in this country at that time as well and the difficulties that occurred during the Depression. And these imprinted themselves on me in such a way that when eventually I decided to study medicine, I was interested in larger questions. And then even when I became a scientist, a medical scientist, I found that I continued to be interested in these larger questions, as if being perplexed by the paradoxes of life, seeming to be so unnecessary. And then when I had an opportunity to try to create a place that would bring out the best in people, I took advantage of that, which was why we’re here, to try to create an environment that is like a work of art, in which one can work to bring out the best in some of the most creative minds that could be gathered together.

And so I think that we have an instinct, an impulse to improve our world. And I think that’s quite universal.

Moyers: When I was out here last year to visit the institute, you said, “Bill, we have to learn to think like nature.”

Salk: That’s right.

Moyers: And I didn’t follow up on that, walked away and on the plane back said, “Wait a minute, what did he mean, ‘to think like nature’?”

Salk: What we’re doing now is trying to think like nature, in the sense that we are aware that species that have gone before us have disappeared from the face of the Earth. We’d like to use our intelligence and our creative capacity to prolong our presence on the face of the Earth as long as possible. It requires, therefore, that we develop the kinds of tactics and strategies amongst ourselves so as to assure that this can occur, to assure that we will not destroy ourselves or the planet, to make it uninhabitable and to allow the fullness of the potential of the individual to be expressed, to flower. That is –

Moyers: What is –

Salk: – awfully ideal. The question now is how can we translate this, how can we make this operative? If you want me to give you an example –

Moyers: Yeah.

Salk: – of how people can solve problems for themselves? When the problem of polio confronted this nation, confronted the world, there was an organization that formed in this country called the March of Dimes. Volunteers. They were not government-directed or -led. They didn’t ask the government to do anything. They did it themselves. That’s just a small illustration of what has happened in the past and can happen again and is happening continuously now here and, I think, in other parts of the world.

Moyers: I read the other day, coming out here, in fact, that by the year 2000, which is not very far from now, there will be some 20 million people in the world carrying the AIDS virus. Is that a comparable challenge to what you faced with polio 50 years ago?

Salk: Well, it’s an even more difficult challenge, but that’s what evokes a response on the part of those who want to solve the problem, who are addressing themselves to just that question and philosophically, in approaching it. The virus, if it prevails, then we will lose. But if we are able to reduce the damage caused by the virus and, at the same time, try to enhance the immune response to the virus and establish a more favorable balance between the two, then we will be doing in relation to that problem what we want to do in relation to the world and that is to reduce the negative and enhance the positive at one and the same time.

Moyers: The good news would be that there is a vaccine that protects us and immunizes us, against the AIDS virus. Are we going to have that good news, do you think, in your time and mine?

Salk: My expectation is that we will solve the problem. It’s just a matter of time and just a matter of strategy. Now, why do I say that this is the case? It’s because I think solutions come through evolution. It comes through asking the right question, because the answer pre-exists. But it’s the question that we have to define and discover, to discover and to define.

Moyers: You mean, when you asked the question about how to defeat polio, the answer was already there?

Salk: Mm-hmm, in a way. If you think of David and Michelangelo, it was in the stone, but it had to be unveiled and revealed. You don’t invent the answer. You reveal the answer.

Moyers: From nature.

Salk: From nature.

Moyers: From the life process.

Salk: Yes.

Moyers: But is it conceivable that some other form of life, the AIDS virus, a cancer cell, might have a defense mechanism that protects its own survival over ours?

Salk: In fact, that’s precisely how those organisms work. They break down, oppose the defense mechanism that we otherwise erect against them, so that one of the ways in which the AIDS virus works is to impair the immune system. Not only that, but I think that it even induces the immune system to form an antibody that protects the virus.

Moyers: It’s fighting for survival, too?

Salk: Indeed. And it’s this struggle for survival that leads me to wonder whether or not the problem will not be solved by a resolution in which the objective will be to live and let live, so that the virus may remain in the body, but not cause disease.

Moyers: So that’s why you’ve suggested a strategy of research that would immunize the victim after he or she had been infected.

Salk: Yes. To see if we can’t possibly find a phase or stage in the process of infection before impairment has gone too far, to see if we cannot erect or strengthen the defense mechanism before that happens.

Moyers: It’s been two years since you made that suggestion. Are there any results that you can talk about yet?

Salk: No. All we can say is that it takes a long time for results to emerge when the process is so long.

Moyers: Why is it so difficult to explore a vaccine for AIDS?

Salk: Well, the reason that it takes so long is because of the time required for the disease to develop. It was very easy when an influenza vaccine had to be developed to immunize in October and by January you knew, in the midst of an epidemic, whether you had a result. In the case of polio, a field trial was done just before the summer months when the outbreak occurred. By the end of the summer, you knew what the results were. In the case of AIDS, it’s an entirely different story. It’s more like trying to find a way to treat or control cancer.

Moyers: Implicit in your faith of our ability as human beings to find the answer in nature, implicit in your faith is a conviction, it seems to me, that humans are the last complex form of life for which nature has been striving.

Salk: The highest.

Moyers: The highest. But what if the maintenance of life is not the ultimate expression of nature’s intention?

Salk: I think it’s the maintenance of evolution.

Moyers: That is the process?

Salk: Mm-hmm.

Moyers: Of –

Salk: It’s the maintenance of the process of evolution through living organisms, of which we are the most evolved and hence, as Julian Huxley said, we are the trustees of evolution.

Moyers: Of life?

Salk: Evolution is of living things. You see, we talk about matter, life and consciousness, if you like. By life, I mean the kinds of living things that we discuss — that we study here. And if you are thinking about — speaking about — life in terms of human life, that is another level.

Moyers: On this whole mystery of energy and force and consciousness.

Salk: Yes, that’s what it’s all about. And I think that that’s what we are coming to recognize. Hence, there is more and more interest in studying not only the nervous system, not only the brain, but the human mind. And the relationship between mind and brain, brain and mind, mind and body. And we’re now more sophisticated than we were at one time, when we thought about these things in supernatural terms. I once said jokingly to someone, “It was too bad that they made God supernatural.” And I believe that seeing nature and the human side of nature, there’s two aspects or two facets of the same phenomenon. We begin to recognize ourselves as part of nature, but as having a guardianship role in relation to this remarkable planet that sits here in this part of the cosmos, in which life evolved, life emerged.

Moyers: You once said that, “If I use the term ‘the great mystery,’ they’ll say, ‘Salk:’s gone off the deep end.'” You think that’s still true? Because I don’t. I think that there’s a growing awareness that the next frontier is the mystery of transcendence.

Salk: Well, if you were to discuss this question among scientists, they would say, “What do you mean by transcendence?”

Moyers: That which takes us beyond ourselves.

Salk: Yes.

Moyers: And links us — religion, religio — links us —

Salk: Mm-hmm.

Moyers: – to the universe.

Salk: Yes. Well, when you say that, I see a correspondence to my thinking, but I use a different metaphor, if you like, the metaphor of evolution. Which is the process by which we have transcended already our biological origins and our biological heritage, so to speak, to what you might think of as metabiological, in the sense of the human mind and human consciousness.

I like to play with biological metaphors, as you probably know and I sometimes think of ideas as equivalent to genes, bits of information that are expressions of units of meaning, which we then communicate and convey. And it’s through the ideas that we formulate, that we transform. And the ideas, when expressed, either in written word or verbally or in the creation of something material — an invention, a painting, a poem — in effect are not unlike the secretions of the human mind, if you like, but in a nonmaterial form, unless it’s materialized in some way. Now, the building in which we are didn’t come out of nature. It came out of the human mind.

Moyers: Your imagination, the imagination of those who work with you.

Salk: Indeed. And so you begin to see that our ancestors had created all that exists, in a way, for reasons that were relevant at the time. And we are doing the same thing now. And we’re becoming more and more conscious of this and it’s this evolution of consciousness, if you like, the raising of consciousness and awareness of what the human potential is all about. It’s almost like, as I sometimes like to refer to, the caterpillar becoming a butterfly. And we’re breaking out of the caterpillar stage into this next phase. It’s a kind of a metamorphosis that’s occurring. It’s as if the human mind and the human self is maturing, to the point where it is no longer capable of being restrained, nor should it be restrained. And we now have to become oriented to looking upon the future as one that would be governed less by external restraint and more by self-restraint.

Moyers: Why do you think that’s so?

Salk: Because we are reaching a point where we might go beyond the point of no return, as in the pollution of the environment, as the destruction of vital species, as allowing humankind to become so ill of mind as to become self-destructive, auto-destructive, in some way.

Moyers: Democracy’s on the rise again as a powerful moral idea in the world and democracy can be slow, cumbersome, error-prone. Is democracy consistent with your vision of the future?

Salk: Yes, I — yes, it is. If we include in that, opportunity for individuals to contribute — to initiate and to contribute to change. I look upon my lifespan and I recognize the enormous opportunities that I’ve had. Some I’ve created; nevertheless, it was through that that I have been able to do the things that I’ve done. No one asked me to do the things that I’ve done. I took the initiative myself. And I believe that that’s a universal trait and characteristic that exists within us, which I think of as the evolutionary force being expressed and attempting to improve the species, to improve life, to improve the possibility for survival. And that is what was responsible. That’s how nature thinks. That’s how nature works.

Now we come to the human side of nature. And democracy would be a way, a form of relationship. I’d rather use that than government — a form of relationship in which we feel responsible, both as individuals and as citizens or members of the collective, which means that we have to negotiate between these two roles in such a way as to produce the desired effect, that would bring out the best in ourselves and the best in others.

Moyers: I like that word, “negotiate.” There’s something quite human about that, but it’s also been tested and tried in nature, too, hasn’t it?

Salk: It’s what goes on all the time. And if we solve the AIDS problem, I should say, when we solve the AIDS problem, it will be because we will have negotiated with the forces — between the forces — that are involved.

Moyers: You’ve used a wonderful term before in describing what you’ve done with your life. You say you’ve spent your life reading the scriptures of nature. Is there some immortal lesson in those scriptures of nature?

Salk: I believe so. When I had discovered there was more to learning than in the books that we were exposed to and then, when I became interested in science, became interested in medicine, became interested in bringing science into medicine, I recognized that there was a logic to the magic. I mean, life is magic, in the way nature works, seems to be quite magical. I mean, how is there something as remarkable as the immune system and something as remarkable as what I’ve come to learn about immunological memory? You vaccinate an individual and they remember that experience. And so at some later time, if they’re exposed to the real enemy, they say, “I’ve seen you before.” They respond appropriately and quickly.

And then I started to try to understand how that process works, how that system works. And I began to tease out the logic of the magic that I was so impressed by. And that’s what we do in this institute, that’s what scientists do and all that pre-exists. And how did that come into existence? In this remarkably complex functional state that allows us to sit here and reflect upon the cosmos of which we are a product and ask even such long-range, profound questions as, “How can we influence the future? Not merely the present and the past, but the future as well.” But in order to influence the future, we have to influence the present. And, therefore, we’re influencing the process. What is the process? Evolution. And, therefore, through the scriptures of nature, I then learn how evolution works. And that’s what I had in mind when this institute was created, to try to understand how evolution works at all levels of complexity: the molecular, cellular level, the human level. So that we would be empowered with the kind of knowledge that transcends, if you like, the kind of knowledge that is available to us through our normal experience.

And what do I do when I conduct an experiment? I try to make the invisible visible. There’s something there. I can understand it by the effects that are produced. But how did that come to be? I have to imagine that and then try to make that visible to myself and then to others.

Moyers: You’re thinking like nature.

Salk: That’s right.

Moyers: You’re thinking in nature.

Salk: That’s right.

Moyers: Because you are thinking of nature.

Salk: Mm-hmm.

Moyers: You are nature.

Salk: That’s —

Moyers: You and I are nature.

Salk: — Indeed. Now you have it. It’s as simple as that. But we must acknowledge ourselves as part of nature, not apart from nature.

Moyers: Are you saying that we humans were inherently the purpose at work in this whole process?

Salk: I prefer to say that we are the consequence, or the effect or the result, of whatever intelligence, you might say, exists in the cosmos. The way I like to look at it is that the human mind is the combination of the organization of complexity, to such an extent that whatever was created is now capable of being expressed through human creativity. And that, were we to have the wisdom, we could shape the future.

Moyers: What do you mean, “wisdom?”

Salk: I have defined wisdom as the capacity to make retrospective judgments prospectively. The capacity to make judgments that, when looked back upon, will seem to have been wise. Now, that’s just a way of putting oneself into a position of understanding that there’s a short-term and a long-term way of seeing the world.

Moyers: And wisdom involves making decisions in the long run, even at the sacrifice of some short- term gains —

Salk: Yeah, yeah.

Moyers: — or rewards.

Salk: Yes. That’s a new challenge, Bill. That was not as necessary before as it is now. And necessity is a very compelling force. It’s even more compelling than wisdom.

Moyers: From The Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, this has been a conversation with Dr. Jonas Salk. I’m Bill Moyers.

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