During the last years of his life, Dr. Jonas Salk became obsessed with developing a vaccine for AIDS. A colleague described Salk's focused motivation to solve problems as extraordinary, citing his absolute refusal to take "no" for an answer.
"Whenever any of us would get discouraged, he wouldn't allow it," said Dr. Alexandra Levine in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. "
"Go forward,' he would say, because he believed he was on the right track and was frustrated only by the fact that the scientific community was not willing to listen."
It is no surprise that the man who developed the vaccine that saved generations from polio's often fatal debilitation would be given to persevere. More than 40 years ago, Salk concentrated his work on polio after others had failed and in some cases even gone awry. As the risk of polio continued to increase, Salk responded. His killed-virus vaccine ended decades of parents' fears of contagion that kept children home from swimming pools and forced families to sleep with their windows shut in the sweltering summer. His work relegated the once common and frightening image of children encased in "iron-lung" breathing tanks to medical history.
Since then, Salk's name regularly has appeared on lists of the public's heroes. His polio injection was replaced by the oral live vaccine developed later by Dr. Albert Sabin, but Salk's seminal work still is remembered by many of today's parents, most of whom bear the mark of the Salk vaccine.
For nine years before he died last week at age 80, Salk had turned his attention to AIDS research. His unfinished quest bears the same humble determination that led him to say in 1955 that the people owned the patent to his polio vaccination. "There is no patent," he said. "Could you patent the sun?"
Sadly, Salk's noble fight to rid the world of AIDS has ended as the American political culture grows increasingly hostile toward the effort. Instead of going forward to fight AIDS, as Salk encouraged his colleagues, the current Congress is poised to reduce federal funding for AIDS research, prevention and education programs.
The generations now living, and dying, with AIDS deserve the momentum and hope that Salk embodied.