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Yousuf Karsh, master photographer of the 20th century

Jonas Salk, the People’s Scientist

Jonas Salk, 1956

In this quarter’s issue of The New Atlantis, contributing editor Algis Valiunas writes about Jonas Salk, using our portrait to illustrate. Salk discovered and developed one of the first successful polio vaccines.

At the age of forty, Jonas Salk became the most beloved scientist in America. He was probably the most beloved scientist the world has ever seen. Einstein may have been more famous, but very few understood what he had done. He was much loved, but in the way hobbits or leprechauns are loved, fancifully, as a bearer of benign, alien magic. J. Robert Oppenheimer was as famous as Salk, and millions were grateful for what he did, yet his achievement also made him notorious — downright malignant in the eyes of many, the malignancy growing as the monstrosity of Imperial Japan has receded from public memory. But everyone knew and understood what Jonas Salk had done with the vaccine for paralytic poliomyelitis that bears his name, and everyone loved him for it unreservedly, with the exception of a good many other scientists, who were grossly outnumbered by the adoring multitude.

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