UCSD library opens exhibit of Jonas Salk papers

In the town where I grew up, there was a child who had polio. His name was Billy. He was tall and slender, the middle of three brothers, who were very athletic, playing on the high school golf and football teams.

Polio had left Billy with one hand curled into a frozen claw. He wore a metal leg brace and walked with a decided limp. He slurred when he spoke. Most of the kids made fun of him, which caused him to develop a defensive attitude.

Billy loved baseball, and despite his physical limitations, he played centerfield on a Little League team. When a fly ball came his way in the outfield he would clamor over to it and catch it in a mitt that was placed on his good hand. Then he would grasp the glove under his other armpit and throw it back with his good hand, which had been in the glove. It took some extra time to accomplish this, but he worked at getting it done quickly.

When he was up to bat, Billy would hold and swing his bat with just his one good arm. When he ran down to first base, you could hear the clunk of his leg brace.

I wasn’t immune from poking fun at him and imitating his walk or slurring talk. But looking back, I realize I should have had respect for him going out there and playing despite jeers and people’s uneasiness with his disabilities. In those days, before the Americans with Disabilities Act, there was stigma associated with a disability and people with one were usually kept shut in and out of the public eye.

Billy was probably one of the last people to contract polio, thanks to the groundbreaking vaccine that Jonas Salk brought to the world in 1957. After Salk, polio practically disappeared from the planet.

If Salk would have met Billy, no doubt he would have went up to him and apologized for not having made his vaccine ready sooner, as he did after one of his lectures to a young lady in the audience who was walking with crutches.

• The Salk Archives at UCSD

Since polio has just about disappeared, people have forgotten about it and many don’t know who Salk was or what he accomplished. Dona Mapston, who takes the Salk Institute Educational Outreach van to middle schools, says children aren’t taught about Jonas Salk anymore and don’t know what polio is. She is trying to raise their awareness.

Fifty or 60 years ago, polio was on everyone’s mind. People feared it almost as much as they feared Russia would drop an atomic bomb on America. Trains would not stop in towns where there had been an outbreak of polio, which each summer killed or paralyzed-for-life, thousands of people.

To preserve Salk’s work forever and give people throughout the world access to his papers, the UCSD Library Special Collections department has taken steps to create a “Finding Aid” or table of contents to help people sort through more a 1,000 boxes of materials that were donated to the library by Salk’s three sons, Peter, Jonathan and Darrell, who’ve all followed in their father’s footsteps to become medical doctors. The library also plans to digitalize all of Salk’s papers and the numerous audio recordings he made.

To announce the opening of the Salk Archives and celebrate his life, the library held a special conversation titled “Culture, Creativity and Community: The Legacy of Jonas Salk” on Oct. 30 at the UCSD Faculty Club. The event featured The San Diego Union Tribune science editor Gary Robbins interviewing Salk’s sons, Peter and Jonathan, with UCSD sociologist Mary Walshok, author of “Invention & Reinvention: The Evolution of San Diego’s Innovation Economy.”

The evening proved to be a wonderful opportunity to get an inside view of Salk, the man and the scientist. Peter said his father was, “Not just a scientist but someone who was always thinking about the meaning of life and existence.”

“Dad was always trying to read and understand ‘the scriptures of nature’ — the laws and forces of the natural world that govern us,” he said. “My father wanted to heal the world. Dad didn’t have an off switch, he was always talking or writing about or recording his ideas about life and nature. He would even wake several times in the middle of the night and write down his ideas.”

Added Jonathan, “Yes, father was determined and relentless. If he had an idea, like the polio vaccine or the Institute, he would figure it out down to all the details, and make it happen. But he was also sensitive, artistic and philosophic — a real bio-philosopher or an artistic scientist who wished to merge intuition and reason.”

Robbins noted that was exactly what Salk wanted for the Salk Institute in La Jolla: “That it be a place for the merging of the sciences and the arts.”

Walshok added, “He made connections with people from all walks of life and energized them with his enthusiasm. For example, he befriended the mayor of San Diego and convinced him to donate 27 acres overlooking the ocean on Torrey Pines Mesa for the Institute, and he enchanted architect Louis Kahn and together they worked single-mindedly to design and build the monumental architecture of the Institute, which is today one of the most important landmarks in our city.”

(Editor’s Note: In June 1960, through a referendum, the citizens of San Diego voted overwhelmingly to make a gift of 27 pueblo lots in the La Jolla area, just west of the new UC San Diego campus, for Salk’s dream. The Institute began operation in temporary quarters in 1963, and permanent buildings designed by architect Kahn were completed in 1967. The complex soon gained international fame for its extremely modern and austere design, which now enjoys a cult following among architecture and design buffs. Salk served as the Institute’s director until 1975.)

For more information about the Salk Archives, contact Lynda Claassen, director of special collections and archives at lclaassen@ucsd.edu or (858) 534-2553.

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