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"Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next."Jonas Salk
Poster design:Ellen Weinstein


Commentary by Noah Efron

In the five years before Jonas Salk introduced his vaccine, almost 200,000 Americans came down with polio. Many lost the use of their arms or legs; more than 9,000 died. The disease struck mostly in the summer, and as the days grew long, parents were beset by terror that their healthy children would fall ill. 

In 1965, a decade after Salk’s vaccine went into use, just 72 people contracted polio and only 16 died.  It may be that no act of human genius saved more lives more quickly.

Two things guided Salk. One was the sheer intellectual challenge of figuring out, for the first time, how to stop a disease that had plagued people since before the ancient Egyptians. He believed that what he meticulously wrote in his lab notebooks – trial after trial, intuition after intuition – would eventually lead to a solution.

The second was his wish to make the world better and safer. “My desire,” Salk said, “was to help humankind.” Salk was not motivated by fame or fortune. Although he became one of the most famous people in the world – airline pilots would announce over the loudspeaker when he was on the plane, and the other passengers would cheer – he hated the attention. His vaccine was worth billions of dollars, but he refused to patent the vaccine for his own profit. “Could you patent the sun?” he famously asked, insisting that his invention belonged to all people.

We don’t know precisely how many millions owe their lives to Salk, but the world was transformed by both his intellectual drive and his commitment to tikkun olam (“repairing the world”).

Noah Efron is founding chairperson of the Program in Science, Technology & Society at Bar Ilan University and serves on the Executive Committee of the International Society for Science and Religion. He is the author of A Chosen Calling: Jews in Science in the Twentieth Century and other books. He has served on the Tel Aviv-Jaffa City Council and is host of The Promised Podcast.