Kathleen Murray worked with Dr. Salk from 1989 until his death in 1995. In 2015, Salk’s inactivated polio vaccine will be introduced in 126 countries—the largest vaccine rollout in history. Photo: Kathleen Murray.
Today, on the 60th anniversary of Dr. Jonas Salk’s inactivated polio vaccine being declared “safe, effective and potent,” we profile Kathleen Murray, Dr. Salk’s assistant at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. The vaccine continues to make history today as a critical tool to achieve global polio eradication.
Q: Tell us about your connection to Dr. Salk.
A: I had been at the Salk Institute for about one year when Dr. Salk asked to see me. Because his assistant of 45 years was retiring, he was looking for someone to manage his office. He began our first meeting by saying, “To determine whether we would be a good match, let’s get together like this from time to time and get to know each other.” However, at the end of that first conversation he stood up and said, “Well I’m comfortable—if you are—that we can work well together.” And with that, I became assistant to one of the twentieth century’s greatest heroes.
Q: I’m sure you get asked this question a lot, but…what was Dr. Salk like?
A: Dr. Salk was a deeply committed scientist, philosopher, and humanist. Generally, he was serious, always working. In addition to the polio vaccine, he helped develop one of the first influenza vaccines and a therapeutic AIDS treatment; started the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which makes groundbreaking contributions to understanding diseases; was an active board member of many organizations; and was a researcher and philosopher concerned about the future of mankind and human evolution. However, he was also approachable, warmly welcoming visitors to the Institute campus. During the years I worked with him he was quiet, thoughtful, and a little melancholy because his two younger brothers had died within six months of each other. He deeply mourned their loss.
Q: What do you think motivated Dr. Salk?
A: Family, friends, colleagues, historians, journalists—they all know that Jonas Salk was motivated by a lifelong desire to alleviate suffering and improve the condition of humankind. He was born in New York City, two years before the 1916 polio epidemic devastated that city. That year, 8,900 children and adults were infected, and 2,400 people, mainly children under the age of five, died of polio. He grew up watching epidemics of polio, influenza, diphtheria, typhoid, and other infectious diseases. He was central to establishing the field of immunization that rid the world of many diseases that we see little of today.
While polio can strike at any age, it mainly affects children under age five. Because there is no cure, prevention through vaccination is the only protection for children. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.
Q: What do you think Dr. Salk would say if he knew that his vaccine was about to be introduced in 126 countries this year?
A: Dr. Salk worked tirelessly until he died at the age of 80. He hoped that the inactivated polio vaccine would be used globally so that the virus would no longer exist anywhere in the world. I don’t what he would say, but he did believe that eventually it would happen.
Q: In one sentence, what did you learn, and what can we all learn from Dr. Salk’s legacy?
A: He believed that we have the knowledge and the ability to influence the evolution of humankind—use it wisely.
Fully eradicating polio will require stopping virus transmission, maintaining immunity for several years after eradication, and monitoring for poliovirus in all parts of the world. To meet these challenges, PATH is working with partners and providing technical support on the development of high-quality, low-cost polio vaccines as well as improved surveillance tools to detect poliovirus that are easy to use, reliable, and can be processed by local laboratories without complex equipment. PATH is also conducting research to determine whether dose-sparing technologies can be used to improve the cost and performance of inactivated polio vaccines.
Guest contributor Laura Edison is a scientific communications associate in our Vaccine Access and Delivery Program at PATH.