Last week, the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health unveiled a free, public exhibit of historical laboratory equipment, documents and photographs from seven decades ago when Jonas Salk, M.D., and his team developed and tested in Pittsburgh the world’s first vaccine against polio.
Materials on display in the Jonas Salk Legacy Exhibit emanate from a gift from Jonas Salk’s sons, Peter L. Salk, M.D., Darrell J. Salk, M.D., and Jonathan D. Salk, M.D., to the university and are showcased through displays of original objects and photographs in Pitt Public Health’s ground floor lobby. In addition, Salk’s midcentury modern office desk is in the school’s “Commons” area as an interactive exhibit, inviting public health students to study at the desk surrounded by numerous awards and accolades he was given after developing the polio vaccine, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom citation and special recognition from Disneyland.
“We profoundly thank the Salk family for sharing Jonas Salk’s legacy with the University of Pittsburgh during the School of Public Health’s 75th anniversary year,” said Maureen Lichtveld, M.D., M.P.H., Pitt Public Health dean and Jonas Salk Professor of Population Health. “And we are honored to celebrate this impactful public health discovery with the city whose residents selflessly rolled up their sleeves to become the first polio vaccine trial participants.”
One of the early trial participants was Peter Salk, Jonas Salk’s eldest son, who was vaccinated alongside his brothers in 1953 and is now a professor of infectious diseases and microbiology at Pitt Public Health.
“It’s a real pleasure to see these historical materials on display at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health and in the care of the University Library System,” said Peter Salk, also president of the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation. “My father would be very happy seeing the story told by these items of laboratory equipment, awards, newspapers and documents that have been so carefully preserved for all these decades, and that have now returned ‘back home’ to Pittsburgh.”
The exhibit originated with an idea born out of conversations between Peter Salk and Pitt Public Health’s previous dean, Donald S. Burke, M.D. It turned out that when Jonas Salk left Pitt, he took lab equipment and documents from the polio vaccine project with him, much of which was eventually placed in storage near his final home in La Jolla, California. Peter Salk invited Burke to first visit one of the storage facilities over a decade ago.
“Opening the boxes was a dream come true,” said Burke, Distinguished University Professor of Health Science and Policy and Epidemiology at Pitt Public Health. “I was a child when Jonas Salk and his team here at Pitt developed the polio vaccine. I clearly recall the celebration when we were finally free from the fear of polio. Salk became a scientist-hero to my generation, and I’m delighted to bring his legacy back to Pittsburgh where it will inspire future generations of health professionals.”
Burke and several Pitt Public Health student assistants partnered with Alex Taylor, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of History of Art & Architecture at Pitt, and a team of undergraduate Museum Studies students, to sort through the laboratory equipment to curate items of historical significance for display. Two large centrifuges, an incubator, glass flasks and other items will be exhibited in a laboratory scene, positioned near a tank respirator — or “iron lung” — that would encase people with severe polio, helping them to breathe.
“It was important to us that the exhibit do more than showcase equipment,” said Taylor. “We want the objects to help viewers imagine the urgency that propelled Salk’s lab in the 1950s. By placing the iron lung near the lab equipment, we recall the former Pittsburgh Municipal Hospital where vaccine development progressed on one floor while polio patients were treated with iron lungs on another.”
Another portion of the Salk gift is managed by the University Library System (ULS), where archivists are preserving and making accessible Jonas Salk’s research papers spanning from when he joined Pitt in 1947 through to his death in 1995. In addition to front page newspaper headlines trumpeting the polio vaccine and research files documenting the vaccine regimen’s fine-tuning, the records include consent forms and vaccination cards from the Pittsburgh school children who served as the earliest polio vaccine trial participants.
“These records are a tangible testament to the role that thousands of Pittsburgh school children — who are now in their late 70s and early 80s — played in setting the world on a path to hopefully soon eradicate polio,” said Edward Galloway, M.L.I.S., associate university librarian for archives and special collections at the University Library System. “We hope that these Pittsburgh Schools Trial participants will be as excited to see their records as we were to discover them.”
Pittsburgh Schools Trial participants can inquire about accessing their polio vaccine records by calling ULS Archives & Special Collections at 412-648-3232. To view the Salk Legacy Exhibit, visit the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health ground floor lobby weekdays between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.
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