Knight in a white coat

How did a bright — but not brilliant — boy grow up to become a medical legend?

“Dr. Jonas Edward Salk, creator of Salk polio vaccine, at Copenhagen Airport” by SAS Scandinavian Airlines. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The following is an extract from Jonas Salk: A Life by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, and explores the childhood of a first-generation Jewish boy who aspired to repair the world.

Jonas was a gentle child, docile like his father. But it was his mother who molded him from the start. He described his early years as “the life of an only child, having full attention of a doting, controlling mother who wanted to be sure that her child is protected and will grow up to be a worthwhile person.” Stressing his education, Dora made certain her son learned to read early on. “Jonas was always in a book,” recalled a relative. When his cousin Helen coaxed him out to play tag or hide-and-seek, she occasionally extracted a laugh from Jonas. Although Salk’s early childhood could have been tainted by the events surrounding it — a world war, a major outbreak of poliomyelitis, and the Great Influenza epidemic — all before he turned five, Jonas grew up unscathed, largely due to the efforts of his mother.

Thin, with a mop of curly hair and glasses, Jonas was among the smallest in his class at Public School no. 44, located on Prospect Avenue in the Bronx. He pleased his teachers with his eagerness to learn and skipped several grades. Relatives likewise regarded him as highly intelligent. “Even as a kid,” one noted, “when Jonas said something, you could put it in the bank.” He didn’t talk much, however, and when he did, he spoke quietly, carefully selecting every word. “I tended to observe and reflect and wonder,” he later said, although he didn’t reveal his deliberations to others. “I kept pretty much to myself.” While neighborhood boys played stickball and marbles, Jonas read. Dora encouraged his intellectual growth over his physical or social development.

Before long, his quiet, orderly life was disrupted by the births of his brothers. Herman was born when Jonas was five. Talkative and gregarious, he pestered Jonas to play. His sense of humor and love of practical jokes seemed out of place in the Salk household. Lee was born seven years later. Socially adept, as he grew up he attracted a large number of friends, and he was the only person who could manipulate Dora with his charm. Jonas considered his brothers intrusions.

Dora ran her home like the foreman she had been in the garment industry. She cleaned the apartment, cooked and washed without the aid of modern appliances, and mended the boys’ clothes so that they looked new. She nursed her sons through measles and mumps and guarded them against influenza and polio. She worked late into the evening finishing her housework and cooking for the next day so she could take her sons to the library or park. When other mothers complained they needed to go home and make dinner, she would announce, “I’ve already done mine.” Living in a community in which a woman’s worth was measured by the cleanliness and orderliness of her home, the quantity and quality of the food she prepared, the clothes her children wore, and their scholastic achievements, Dora had no time for leisure. She soon looked older than her husband.

Dora was a tough taskmaster. Every night the dinner table resembled a battleground. She insisted the boys clean their plates, and when they finished, she piled on more. Herman defied his mother; Jonas, on the other hand, never rebelled openly. He tucked food in his cheeks, slipped away from the table, and spit it out. When it came to the boys’ schoolwork, Dora expected perfect grades. That was easy for Jonas, who loved learning; Herman had difficulty reading and nearly failed. He was later thought to have dyslexia, though this was not understood at the time. His teachers attributed his poor performance to laziness. As a result, he and his mother regularly locked horns.

Daniel lacked his wife’s tenacity. Although a talented lace maker and designer, he was a bit of a dreamer, in and out of work. Lee later likened his father to Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, “beaten down in business but still believing that success would soon be his.” Worried about whether Daniel would make enough to cover the rent and food, Dora insisted he hand over his paychecks so that she could manage their finances. She squirreled away substantial amounts to cover those times when she could not count on her husband. Daniel was an affable man, content to sit in Central Park, chatting with strangers and feeding the squirrels and pigeons. “I think back on his innocent delight,” Lee wrote, “as the pigeons would light and eat from his hand. I can vividly recall the feel of his whiskers and the smell when he would hug me or when he would pick me up and then lift me high into the air. . . . And how I loved walking with him, holding onto his index finger . . . and how much he wanted to make me happy, even though he could scarcely afford even the simplest pleasures.”

Relatives don’t remember Dora and Daniel fighting, nor do they recall much affection. If angry, Dora tightened her lips, and Daniel left. He could not bear quarrelling; besides, she always prevailed. When Jonas wanted to play an instrument, his father bought him a violin. Dora said they were not rich enough for violin lessons and made Daniel return it. When Dora decided Jonas needed a desk, he told his father he dreamed of one with a fold-down top, shelves on which he could arrange his books, and cubbyholes in which he could organize his papers. Daniel brought home a secretary, but Dora said it was too expensive and made him exchange it for a simple student’s desk.

Though not devout, the Salks were observant. In the Jewish tradition, a prayer is said at a child’s birth, expressing the hope that his life will include Torah (symbolizing learning), huppah (the wedding canopy, representing commitment to family), and ma’asim tovim (meaning good deeds). In preparing for his bar mitzvah, a boy learns about the three types of ma’asim tovim — tzedakah (giving money to the poor), gemilut hassadim (acts of loving kindness), and tikkun olam (repairing the world). For Jews, acts of goodness define a person. For Jonas, ma’asim tovim was not an option; it was an obligation.

A number of childhood memories made lifelong impressions on Salk. As an adult, he remembered watching a parade in New York on Armistice Day in 1918. Although only four at the time, he was struck by the soldiers missing an arm or leg. That same year, when influenza almost decimated New York, he recalled standing on the sidewalk watching horse-drawn wagons filled with coffins pass by. In the schoolyard, he saw children wearing leg braces. Those early childhood images of amputees, crippled children, and coffins — images that evoked fear and loathing in others — settled in Salk’s soul. “I became aware of a desire to do something in life that would help relieve some of the suffering,” he later said. Inspired by reading about Moses and Lincoln, young Jonas set out to fulfill his duty of tikkun olam. Every day he prayed he would do something good for mankind. His brothers called him “Little Jesus.”

During Jonas’s later childhood, Daniel spent less time at home. Dora didn’t seem to care. She expended her energy on her sons, especially Jonas. They spent hours at the kitchen table talking about the daily news, the family budget, and his future. As the first child, he bore the burden of her expectations. She set the bar high, and once Jonas cleared it, she raised it higher. “With Dora,” her grandson Jonathan said, “you weren’t allowed to be yourself. You had to be what she wanted you to be.” Jonas complied with her wishes and performed his duties well, if joylessly. He never crossed her, as his brothers did: “I tended to be yielding and more obedient than rebellious.” Like his father, Jonas found confrontation disquieting. Instead of slipping away, he learned how to maneuver around his mother, a skill that would help him later in his career.

Jonas had few fond memories of childhood. He longed for privacy, but his mother hovered; her rules suffocated him. Living in cramped quarters, forbidden to go out alone, Jonas had nowhere to escape, even to reflect. “Someday I shall grow up and do something in my own way,” he recalled thinking, “without anyone telling me how.” By the time Jonas entered high school, he was driven and focused. “He was basically born an adult,” his son Peter said. “He didn’t have the freedom to be a child in the constellation of his family.”

In many regards, Salk’s early life typified that of New York Jewish immigrant society. Dora retained the power in the family, as did most housewives of the time. “She often used this power with legendary selflessness,” one historian wrote of the archetypal Jewish mother. Yet it could transform her into the “brassy-voiced, smothering, and shrewish mama upon whom generations of unsettled sons would blame everything from intellectual sterility to sexual incompetence.” Jonas blamed none of his shortcomings on his mother. She may have been controlling, to the point of being tyrannical, but he loved her. He inherited her work ethic, which would serve him well, and he mastered the art of hiding his true feelings behind an agreeable, subdued persona. Dora planned for her sons to succeed in school, go to university, and enter a profession such as medicine or law. Like many Jewish mothers, she looked to her sons to fulfill her aspirations for a better life. “She wanted her children to have more than she had,” Jonas explained. “She lived her life through her children.”

What distinguished Jonas Salk from the thousands of others born into New York Jewish immigrant society was that many found their parents’ expectations to be a burden; he considered them a kind of beacon. Jonas believed that one day he would perform some noble service to humanity. Yet it seemed improbable that this first-generation Jewish boy — small for his age, bright but not brilliant, physically inept, reserved in speech and manner, and comfortable with solitude — could fight for justice, help repair the world. He was no fearless explorer, no goldentongued orator, no inspirational leader, no swashbuckling hero. “I knew I was competent,” Salk told a journalist years later. “I had proved it by achieving that which I was supposed to achieve, time and again. The remainder of childhood was for me a period of patient waiting,” waiting for the time he could perform his good deeds, his ma’asim tovim. Haunted by the images of caskets and crutches, inspired by Moses and Lincoln, committed to tikkun olam — repairing the world — and imbued with the perseverance of his ancestors, he would. Jonas Salk trusted in his destiny. After all, he was born with a caul.

Jonas Salk: A Life (Oxford University Press 2015)

Charlotte D. Jacobs, M.D. is the Ben and A. Jess Shenson Professor of Medicine (Emerita) at Stanford University. She has served as Senior Associate Dean and as Director of the Clinical Cancer Center, and is the author of Jonas Salk: A Life and Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease.