Jonas Salk, Polio Vaccine Inventor, Wrote Us a LetterDecember 17, 2013
It’s never a dull day in the AAUW archives. I never know what treasure I am going to find in our fellowship files. Each fellow is unique. Each one has their own story. In Helen Claudia Henry’s 1955–56 International Fellowship file, I came across two letters written by Jonas Salk, the virologist who discovered the polio vaccine. As I held the letters in my hands, I could not believe that letters from a world-famous scientist are here in the AAUW archives.
As I dug deeper, the story of the letters began to take shape. Helen Claudia Henry was awarded an AAUW International Fellowship in 1955 to work with Jonas Salk in the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh. As an Australian, Henry was interested in the field of virology; the high number of polio cases in her country made her want to help. Jonas Salk wrote these two letters to AAUW to confirm Henry’s acceptance as a fellow in his polio research laboratory. One of these letters was written just nine days after his discovery was made public. The other was written before the official announcement of the polio vaccine. Another letter, written to AAUW by Jonas Salk’s secretary, said, “I feel I must apologize, but I am sure you will understand that life for us has been exceptionally hectic.” When you have just discovered the polio vaccine, yes, your life would be “exceptionally hectic.”
The year Helen Claudia Henry was awarded an AAUW fellowship, fear of polio was widespread — severe cases of polio can lead to permanent paralysis or death. The crippling disease hit its peak infection rate during the late 1940s and early 1950s, when more than 35,000 cases were reported.
Thanks to Salk’s discovery, polio cases have rapidly declined and have even been eradicated in some countries. Since 1979, the United States has been polio-free. Unfortunately, the disease has not disappeared everywhere. In September, polio paralyzed 10 Syrian children. In November, world health officials announced their goal to provide the vaccine to more than 20 million children in the Middle East. The vaccine used today is the same one that Salk developed in a lab 60 years ago, with an AAUW fellow at his side.
Discovering these letters and tracing Helen Claudia Henry’s story reinforced the amazing achievements of all of our fellows. If we have letters written by Jonas Salk in our historical treasure chest, what else might we discover?
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This post was written by AAUW archives intern Justine Rothbart.