Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Challenging medical orthodoxy, which held that only vaccines made of living viruses could provide effective, enduring immunity, Jonas Edward Salk (1914-95) produced a “killed-virus” vaccine that retained immunization capabilities.

His discovery of the first poliomyelitis vaccine, which constitutes one of the greatest breakthroughs in immunology, rendered poliomyelitis (polio) a conquered disease and made Salk a revered public figure and one of the greatest medical heroes of all time.

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In the historic signed statement exhibited here, Salk writes: “Then on a suspenseful April 12, 1955, came the momentous announcement at a scientific meeting at Ann Arbor, Michigan, attended by reporters throughout the world: THE VACCINE IS SAFE, POTENT, AND EFFECTIVE.”

The development of the vaccine had particular consequence in Israel where, due the massive immigration of Jews from post-Holocaust Europe and Middle Eastern and North African countries, a polio epidemic struck in the early 1950s such that by 1956, there were 5,835 documented cases of polio, about 90 percent of them children aged five and under.

Seeking to implement an immunization program as soon as possible, the Israeli Ministry of Health initiated local production of the vaccine on an industrial scale, making Israel the third country – after the U.S. and Denmark – to independently produce the Salk vaccine. Israel successfully carried out a broad vaccination campaign through a wide network of clinics and medical teams throughout the country, including rural settlements and Arab villages.

Born in New York to Ashkenazic Orthodox Russian immigrant parents who wanted him to become a rabbi or school teacher, Salk was an observant Jew until college, attending Hebrew School, laying tefillin daily, and attending synagogue regularly. (The Jewish Daily Forward published an article claiming that Salk dreamed of being a rabbi, an allegation that Salk characterized as “a figment of someone’s imagination.”)

He believed that his Jewish ancestry played a definitive role in influencing his career and life and credited his trait of perseverance in the face of adversity to his Jewish genetic endowment. From his youth, he strongly believed in the doctrine of tikkun olam – repairing the world – and was determined to reach Jewish moral heights to help others.

As one outstanding example: He could have made a fortune by patenting his vaccine – in 2013, Forbes Magazine estimated that Salk had forfeited about seven billion dollars by not patenting it – but he chose instead to follow his Jewish lights and present it to the world. Asked about this, he modestly responded, “There is no patent – can you patent the sun?”

Salk often stated that he almost didn’t get into medical school because of anti-Jewish quotas and that he attended the New York University College of Medicine (1939), from which he earned his M.D., because it was one of the few top academic institutions that rejected the use of such quotas.

Signed photograph of Salk in his laboratory.

Even NYU, however, had its fair share of anti-Semitism, and the fellowship reference that Salk received from his NYU mentor, Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr. – a renowned virologist and epidemiologist – ends with Francis conspicuously suggesting that Salk was an exception to the general rule that Jews cannot get along with people: “Dr. Salk is a member of the Jewish race but has, I believe, a very great capacity to get on with people.”

Many commentators argue that Salk’s failure to win the 1955 Nobel Prize for Medicine – which was awarded to Axel Theorell for his work on the “nature and mode of action of oxidation enzymes” – was also a manifestation of the anti-Semitism of the Nobel Committee and the broader scientific world (in addition to it being a travesty of justice).

Salk had announced the successful use of his vaccine in 1953, one year after a nationwide polio epidemic struck 50,000 children and killed 3,300; the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis began mass vaccinations of school children; and, by 1955, the vaccine had been proven effective. His conscience would not permit him to test his vaccine on the public, so he initially tested it on his own children, earning comparisons to the Biblical Abraham from some quarters (and bitter attacks from others).

He was always proud of his Judaism; in one notable instance, he led his fellow Jews in defying hospital administrators at Mt. Sinai Hospital, who refused to permit interns to wear badges in favor of the Allied war effort because it would be “too political.” When he arrived in Israel in May 1959 to deliver two lectures at Hebrew University, he was greeted enthusiastically by the public as a great Jewish hero, and streets in Ramat Gan and Ashdod are named for him.

Even today, long after his death, anti-Semites come out of the woodwork to argue that the Jew Salk was a “crooked scientist” who “stole credit for the polio vaccine,” and other fools continue to perpetuate the fraud that modern vaccines developed from Nazi medical experiments. In an amusing response to an Arab boycott of Jewish goods, Abba Eban famously announced:

Since it is imperative that all loyal Arabs avoid any and all contact with Jewish influence, the following must be adhered to religiously: … They should continue to die or be crippled by infantile paralysis because the discoverer of the anti-polio vaccine was a Jew, Jonas Salk.

Ironically, Jewish communities endangering the lives of their children by refusing to vaccinate them seem unaware of the anti-Semitic origins of the “anti-vax” movement.

Salk’s iconic role in preventing polio minimized his oft-overlooked role in co-developing the first influenza vaccine as well as his pioneering work on AIDS (he developed a therapeutic vaccine to delay the time between infection with HIV and development of full-blown AIDS) and muscular dystrophy.

In the September 22, 1975 correspondence on his Salk Institute for Biological Sciences letterhead shown here, Salk writes:

I have had the good fortune to enjoy the work I do and then find that it has been a socially useful contribution. I am sure that both Muscular Dystrophy and Cancer will become diseases people read about – hopefully that time can come soon.

Salk was honored with many awards for his path-breaking work – although, as discussed above, not the Nobel Prize – including a Presidential Citation. He was awarded an Honorary Fellowship at the Weizmann Institute of Science dinner on December 8, 1959, where he delivered an address responding to Ritchie Calder’s The Hand of Life: The Story of the Weizmann Institute.

* * * * *

Niels Henrik David Bohr (1885-1962) was the first scientist to apply the quantum theory, which restricts the energy of a system to discrete values, to the problem of atomic and molecular structure. A guiding spirit and major contributor to the development of quantum physics, he published his own model of what came to be known as “the Bohr atom” and won the 1992 Nobel Prize in Physics for “his investigations of the structure of atoms and of the radiation emanating from them.”

Bohr is also well-known for the theory of “complementarity”: while things have a dual nature – such as the electron, which is both a particle and a wave – it is possible to experience only one aspect at a time. He thought this theory could play an important role in fields other than quantum physics, including biology, psychology, and epistemology.

His view of quantum theory eventually prevailed, even though Einstein expressed grave doubts about it. Bohr’s other major contributions include his theoretical descriptions of the periodic table of the elements (1920); his theory of the atomic nucleus being a compound structure (1936); and his understanding of uranium fission in terms of the isotope 235 (1939).

A consultant on the American atom bomb project at Los Alamos, Bohr was deeply concerned about containing nuclear weapons and sought to persuade Churchill and Roosevelt to cooperate toward that end. In 1950, he wrote to the United Nations arguing for rational peaceful policies, and he received the first U.S. “Atoms for Peace Award” (1957).

Card signed and dated by Bohr.

Bohr was born to a non-practicing Christian father and a Jewish mother who was a Christianized Jew and the daughter of David Adler, a Jewish politician with high standing in Danish political and commercial life. His father agreed to let him be raised as a Jew, but his mother had no interest in Judaism and, as such, he did not receive any Jewish education and, in fact, was educated in the Lutheran church. Nonetheless, he refused to marry his Christian spouse in the Church.

Bohr faced a religious crisis at a young age, trying to reconcile the divergent religious views of his parents, his pastors, and his Jewishly active aunt, ultimately becoming a non-believer. His personal religious views might best be understood through a public expression of his religious thinking at a 1927 conference:

The idea of a personal G-d is very much foreign to me. But we ought to remember that religion uses language in quite a different way from science…. Hence, we conclude that if religion does indeed deal with objective truths, it ought to adopt the same criteria of truth as science. But I myself find the division of the world into an objective and a subjective much too arbitrary. The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side will not get us too far.

Nonetheless, he displayed great heroism and concern for his coreligionists. Due to Bohr’s well-known Jewish ancestry and outspokenness as an anti-Nazi who had sheltered Jews, the Nazis marked him for arrest but decided that it would be strategically preferable to simply pick him up during the impending roundup of all Danish Jews, which was scheduled for Rosh Hashanah, 1943.

Warned personally by the Danish ambassador, Bohr managed to flee Copenhagen for Sweden on a fishing boat at the last possible moment – but not before offering a place for his many escaping Jewish colleagues in Germany to live and work. The Allies were under pressure to take him to London so he could work on the atom bomb project, but Bohr refused to leave Sweden until he had a firm promise from King Gustav to give sanctuary to and protect any Danish Jew reaching his shore; only once the agreement was made public did he agree to leave for London. Bohr is credited with saving at least 7,000 Danish Jews from the Holocaust.

But there is more: After founding the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen – now the Niels Bohr Institute – he provided employment and financial support to many refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, including Felix Bloch and James Franck, each of whom went on to win Nobel Prizes.

Presiding over the Second International Poliomyelitis Conference in Copenhagen in 1950, Bohr was very impressed by Salk’s work. It was there that he met both Salk and Basil O’Connor, president of March of Dimes for over three decades, a close FDR associate, and the director of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, an organization involved with the treatment and rehabilitation of polio victims.

The three intellectual giants shared a mutual respect for each other’s work and remained in touch well beyond the years of Salk’s initial achievement. A decade later, while Bohr lived out his final years in Copenhagen, the two men visited and shared the news of Salk’s “great plans for the promotion of fundamental biological research” – the founding of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, with construction set to commence the following year.

In this January 30, 1961 correspondence to O’Connor in New York, Bohr writes:

It was a very great pleasure for my wife and me to receive the excellent photographs which Mrs. O’Connor took the day you visited us together with Mr. Salk in Tisvilde. The pictures will always be a most vivid remembrance of that pleasant day when we talked about the world situation and Dr. Salk’s great plans for the promotion of fundamental biological research. At the moment we have all got new hopes for the future after President Kennedy’s inspired talk and choice of his collaborators and advisers. In the hope that we shall all meet again before too long my wife and I send you and Mrs. O’Connor our heartiest greetings and warm wishes.

After Salk founded the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California (1963), O’Connor’s esteem for him was such that he put almost all of the National Foundation’s money behind Salk’s work.

Finally, Bohr’s legacy may have been best described by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in its August 9, 1995 News Bulletin. The JTA argued, as do many analysts to this day, that the Nazis had effectively defeated themselves by adopting policies that drove Germany’s top Jewish scientists to America, where they were instrumental in helping America beat the Nazis to the atomic bomb. Writing tongue-in-cheek to the defeated Nazi regime, the JTA noted in particular: “Thanks for Neils (sic) Bohr who, though a Dane, was unacceptable to you under your Nuremberg Laws who formulated the theory on which the atomic bomb is based. That man Bohr was a godsend…”

In May 1958, Bohr was the distinguished guest of honor at the opening of the new Nuclear Research Institute at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rechovot.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.