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Polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk's archives 'come home' to the University of Pittsburgh

A cabinet holding laboratory tools.
Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
The Jonas Salk Legacy exhibit also includes two large centrifuges, an incubator and an “iron lung” — the kind of tank respirator that was commonly used to help people with severe cases of polio breathe.

Students at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health can now sit and work at the original desk of Dr. Jonas Salk, the pioneering virologist who led the team that developed the world’s first polio vaccine.

The desk is part of Pitt’s new Jonas Salk Legacy exhibit, on view weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The university is now home to Salk’s archives.

Walking into the School of Public Health off Fifth Avenue, students are greeted by a large roller drum with 50 to 60 holes, each made to hold test tubes.

“And that was one of the Salk contributions to the science of how can you grow large amounts of poliovirus that were necessary to create a vaccine,” said Donald Burke, former dean of public health graduate programs at Pitt.

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Salk joined the University of Pittsburgh in 1947. He later recruited parents and children around southwestern Pennsylvania to participate in the first polio vaccine trials of the 1950s.

The site of the D. T. Watson Home for Crippled Children received a historic marker from Pennsylvania's Historical and Museum Commission in 2018. The facility was the first site of human testing of the polio vaccine.

Consent forms from the families of the 7,500 children who signed up are part of the Salk collection. Burke said the exhibit is meant to honor their contributions as well.

“Most of these people are now in their late 70s and early 80s, a lot of them are still around in the area,” Burke added. “We'd love to talk to people who were in the trials in 1953 and 1954 — before the national trial — and have them share their experiences.”

Though they are not on display in their entirety, participants who were part of the Pittsburgh schools trial can inquire about accessing their polio vaccine records by calling the University Library System’s archives and special collections.

The exhibit also includes two large centrifuges, an incubator and an “iron lung” — the kind of tank respirator that was commonly used to help people with severe cases of polio breathe.

Nearby are several cases displaying Salk’s books. Looking at them, Peter Salk described finding solace in the decision to move his father’s legacy “back home.”

“To be made use of and to serve as an inspiration for people who want to help in whatever way, to help make this a better world,” he said.

The younger Salk is president of the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation, as well as a visiting professor of infectious diseases and microbiology at Pitt.

“To me, this just represents my father in his purity,” he continued. “He was just interested in how are we going to survive, how are we going to make it? How are we going to transform ourselves in this world to a place that we'd like? Of course, we want to live in what we have now, but we want to make it better for everybody.”

Maureen Lichtveld, the School of Public Health’s current dean, said she hopes students will take inspiration from the many Salk artifacts displayed around them as they continue their studies.

“This will be an inspiration [for] them to go to the frontline, where they will work in the future and see how infectious disease impacts communities, but particularly how we can prevent those infectious diseases,” Lichtveld said, “from a cold to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, to any other infectious diseases.”

A ceremonial ribbon cutting and panel discussion on Friday to mark the opening of the exhibit also served as the cornerstone event in the university’s celebration of the School of Public Health’s 75th anniversary.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.