Exhibit honors Pitt’s role in polio defeat

Jonas Salk Vaccine Research Artifacts Come Home

On April 28, the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health unveiled a free, public exhibit of historical laboratory equipment, documents and photographs depicting the work of Jonas Salk, MD, and his team, who developed and tested the world’s first vaccine against polio more than 70 years ago in Pittsburgh.

The exhibit launch, a cornerstone event of the school’s 75th anniversary, included presentations by a panel of experts on the importance of vaccine development both then and today.

Pitt and Pittsburgh figure strongly in scientific history, noted Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, naming Samuel Langley, a 19th-century astronomy professor and aviation innovator, transplant pioneer Thomas Starzl, and Salk—whose signal accomplishments continue to inspire.

When the Salk team worked to foil one of the most dreaded illnesses of the 20th century, though, the city was no mere backdrop, said panelist Donald Burke, MD, Distinguished Professor of Health Science and Policy and emeritus dean of the public health school. “This is a community that pulled together with the scientists to solve a problem,” Burke continued. “I hope we can learn from that.”

Other panelists speaking were Chris Elias, MD, MPH, president of the Global Development Division at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and chair of the foundation’s Polio Oversight Board; Peter Salk, MD, son of Jonas Salk, president of the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation and professor of infectious diseases and microbiology at Pitt Public Health; Stephanie Urchick, EdD, incoming president of Rotary International, a partner in polio eradication efforts worldwide; and Ali Khan, MD, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health.

Maureen Lichtveld, MD, MPH, Jonas Salk Professor of Population Health and dean of Pitt Public Health, moderated the discussion.

When Rotary began its polio eradication program in 1988, the disease could be found in 165 countries, Urchick said. Today, thanks principally to the tireless efforts of frontline health workers distributing vaccines—80% of whom are women—polio remains a risk in only a handful of countries, including Nigeria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and other areas affected by war and internal conflict.

Complicating the issue is the rejection of vaccines by some people over the past 25 years, resulting in outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles. And in stark contrast to the joyous public reception of the Salk polio vaccine, vaccines for COVID-19 remain entangled in politics and suspicion among many around the world, the panelists agreed.

“Most recently, we saw the Florida Surgeon General say, ‘don’t get vaccinated against COVID because it’s more likely to cause heart disease,’” said Khan. “No. COVID vaccine is more likely to save your life.”

Increased visibility for public health is more vital today than ever, he continued, saying, “I think it’s incumbent on all public health practitioners to remind everybody that we don’t lean liberal or progressive or Democrat or Republican. We want to save your life, no matter who you are. We come from a place where everybody matters.”

A recording of the panel discussion is available on the Pitt Public Health YouTube channel.

About the Exhibit

Materials on display are part of a generous gift from Peter, Darrell, and Jonathan Salk, sons of Jonas Salk, to the University of Pittsburgh. A trove of Jonas Salk’s research papers and files are being cataloged and preserved by the University Library’s Archives & Special Collections. Interested in learning more about the Salk collection? Contact Ed Galloway, Archives & Special Collections, or Jessica Burke, School of Public Health vice dean.

Pittsburgh Schools Trial participants may inquire about seeing their polio vaccine records by calling ULS Archives & Special Collections at 412-648-3232. To view the Salk Legacy Exhibit, visit the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health ground floor lobby weekdays between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.

-Michele Baum