Genesis of the Salk Institute: The Epic of Its Founders

Genesis of the Salk Institute: The Epic of Its Founders

by Suzanne Bourgeois


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Genesis of the Salk Institute: The Epic of Its Founders by Suzanne Bourgeois

This work is a personal account of the origins and early years of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Bourgeois crafts an engaging study that draws on her involvement with the Institute and on related archives, interviews, and informal conversations.

The volume discusses the people who founded the Institute and built a home for renowned research-leading scientists of the time as well as non-scientists of stature in finance, politics, philanthropy, publishing, and the humanities. The events that brought people together, the historic backdrop in which they worked, their personalities, their courage and their visions, their clash of egos and their personal vanities are woven together in a rich, engaging narrative about the founding of a world-premier research institution.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520276079
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/06/2013
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Suzanne Bourgeois is Professor Emerita and Founding Director of the Regulatory Biology Laboratory at the Salk
Institute. She has published widely on gene regulation in numerous scientific journals.

Read an Excerpt

Genesis of the Salk Institute

The Epic of Its Founders

By Suzanne Bourgeois


Copyright © 2013 Suzanne Bourgeois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95659-9


Before and after Ann Arbor

Le génie n'est qu'une grande aptitude à la patience. —Buffon

Poliomyelitis (polio) in the United States has essentially disappeared. Actually, the neurological form of polio was rare, and most victims of the disease survived. However, polio victims were typically children, and some of the survivors were left with crippling paralysis. Polio could leave shocking and heartbreaking evidence: little kids struggling to walk with braces and crutches or confined to monstrous iron lungs. Understandably, all parents were terrified, and it is that terror that inspired an entirely new approach to fund raising. Millions of ordinary people, not millionaires, united to collect large sums of money one dime at a time. It is that public support, orchestrated by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), which led to a solution to the disease and to the creation of the Salk Institute.

The story of the polio vaccine has been told many times. Its drama culminated on April 12, 1955, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where it was announced that the Salk vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." Most people were ecstatic, but, as is common in the face of great success, a few felt hurt for not sharing enough of the credit, and others were simply envious. Jonas Salk had "lost his anonymity" and became a popular hero overnight. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies was in nobody's mind on that fateful day, although the now-famous institute never would have existed without the breakthrough announced at Ann Arbor. The Salk Institute owes its existence to Jonas Salk's success in developing the first effective polio vaccine and to his relationship with Basil O'Connor.

In 1955 O'Connor was the powerful founding president of the NFIP, later known as the National Foundation–March of Dimes (NFMOD). Preventing polio was a major public health problem in the United States and Europe in the 1950s. The disease's most famous victim, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), initiated a solution and Jonas Salk worked it out. It was Basil O'Connor who engineered the solution by connecting the early challenge of FDR and the work of Salk. However, O'Connor's contribution to science and his collaboration with Jonas Salk did not end with the polio vaccine. He went on with Jonas to create the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in 1960. The institute was the second achievement that these two men dreamed of and realized together. In both cases, exceptional people and high drama were involved. This is the story of the second dream of Salk and O'Connor.

O'Connor had an extraordinary career as a venture philanthropist, and it may seem surprising that his biography has not been written, although he appears as a major character in many books and articles. The adjectives used to describe him may well account for the absence of a definitive biography: brusque, bombastic, blunt, abrasive, feisty, off-putting, with a low boiling point, and light in personal charm. Perhaps, however, those are some of the characteristics that helped him make history.

Daniel Basil O'Connor was born in Taunton, Massachusetts, on January 8, 1892, to a poor family of Irish descent. He won a fellowship to Dartmouth College, where, admitted as a freshman at the age of sixteen, he got the nickname that his close friends used throughout his life, "Doc." The name was in part a joke, because he was "the skinniest freshman ever seen," a slight boy weighing only 111 pounds, while the big Dartmouth football coach at the time was a John "Doc" O'Connor. However, the name also referred to his initials, since, although he was known as "Basil," his first name was actually Daniel—a name he dropped when he moved to New York City and discovered how many Daniel O'Connors were listed in the New York telephone directory.

Supplementing his fellowship by playing the violin with a small dance band, O'Connor graduated from Dartmouth at nineteen. He was planning to teach for two years to save funds for law school, but another extracurricular activity again served him well: debating. Story has it that Thomas Streeter, a member of the Boston law firm Streeter and Holmes, was a judge at a debate O'Connor had competed in while at Dartmouth. He was so impressed by the student's performance that he offered him a loan that allowed him to enter Harvard Law School immediately.

After graduating from law school in 1915, O'Connor took a job for one year with the prestigious New York law firm Cravath and Henderson. By 1916, however, he had moved to Boston to work for his benefactors Streeter and Holmes, where he remained until 1919. As the United States entered World War I in April 1917, both Streeter and Holmes were in military service, while O'Connor was exempt because of his poor eyesight. This appears to have been an extraordinary opportunity for the young lawyer to study and practice law, and this period contributed greatly to his future success.

In 1919 he opened his own practice in New York at 120 Broadway. The main interest of his office was negotiating contracts between oil producers and refiners. There are several plausible versions of how O'Connor became acquainted with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Dartmouth president Ernest Martin Hopkins is said to have introduced the two young lawyers. They met again at the 1920 Democratic National Convention when O'Connor's brother John was serving in the New York State Assembly and Roosevelt was running for the vice-presidency. Although both O'Connor and Roosevelt occupied offices in the famous 120 Broadway building where they may have met, it was a client of O'Connor, an oilman named John B. Shearer, who knew Roosevelt personally, who brought them together in 1924.

The law partnership of Roosevelt and O'Connor was announced on January 1, 1925. O'Connor wanted the Roosevelt name on the firm to attract clients. Roosevelt, now seriously disabled and struggling with paralysis, wanted his name to remain visible as the main partner of a law office. This would also provide him with a small, steady income independent of his family fortune, whether he was able to work or not. The partnership ended when FDR became president in 1933, but their close relationship lasted until FDR passed away on April 12, 1945.

In 1921, at the age of thirty-nine, FDR had been stricken by a paralysis of the lower body while on vacation at his summer home on Campobello Island, Maine. His condition was diagnosed as polio. By 1924 he had fought back his disease for three years, enduring every treatment possible with little result while at the same time trying to minimize his condition in the eyes of the public. In the summer of 1924 FDR heard from his friend George Foster Peabody about the benefits of warm spring treatments in restoring strength to partially paralyzed limbs. Peabody happened to be part owner of such a facility, Georgia Warm Springs. FDR promptly visited the place in October 1924. That visit gave the desperate FDR renewed optimism, and, although he would never walk again, it was the first step toward a solution to the polio challenge.

Georgia Warm Springs, about eighty miles south of Atlanta, was a run-down resort with a shabby wooden hotel and a few flimsy buildings. Its primary attraction was a large swimming pool fed with warm spring water high in minerals that made it buoyant. The resort and its pool made FDR feel so good and hopeful that he convinced himself that he had found the perfect place for rehabilitation, and he dreamed of restoring the location as a great health resort and a modern treatment center for polio. Against the advice of his wife, Eleanor, and of O'Connor, he bought the ramshackle resort in 1926. He turned it into a nonprofit organization, the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, the precursor of the NFIP.

Although O'Connor was not initially interested in the project, it is while visiting FDR at Warm Springs that he became enticed to participate in the polio campaign. In 1928, when FDR reentered politics as the governor of New York, O'Connor found himself appointed treasurer of the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation. The laudable goal of the foundation was to provide rehabilitation to any victim of polio, but this aspiration was bound to soon bankrupt it, and the foundation almost failed during the Great Depression. When FDR was elected American president and took office in 1933, O'Connor, as treasurer of the foundation, was left holding the bag.

O'Connor involved a group of people interested in the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation to discuss possible fund-raising strategies. Together they came up with the idea of annual President's Birthday Balls. On January 30, the birthday of FDR, great balls organized by local committees were to be held all over the country. This was the first scheme to raise funds through a publicly supported and nationwide campaign. The strategy was much more successful than most people, including the skeptical O'Connor, had expected it to be. The first birthday balls in 1934 brought in more than one million dollars, which allowed continued support of the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation and the initiation of a nationwide program to fight infantile paralysis. However, linking philanthropic fund raising so closely to FDR was seen as highly political, and in 1938 FDR announced the creation of the nonpartisan National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), whose goal was not only to provide treatment to polio victims but also to find a cure for the disease. The committees for the birthday balls eventually evolved into the March of Dimes organizations and the funding arm of the NFIP. Later, the March of Dimes became part of the official name of the foundation itself that became known as the National Foundation–March of Dimes.

The same year the NFIP was founded, in 1938, O'Connor appointed Thomas Rivers, a prominent virologist from the Rockefeller Institute, to lead the Medical Advisory Committee of the NFIP. Rivers was regarded by his colleagues as a pioneer and leader in the relatively new field of virology. As such he was able to recruit some of the best researchers to participate in the work of his committee. In 1938 little was known about polio, and it was time to survey the field and clarify the gaps in knowledge. After disastrous early attempts to develop a vaccine it became clear that there could be no shortcuts: success would come from painstaking work and patience. Rivers and his committee of experts defined an agenda of basic research and got involved in establishing priorities and distributing funding. Another important early decision of Rivers's committee was to train young scientists in the field of virology by offering fellowships.

It should be pointed out that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) did not initiate a program of extramural research grants and fellowships until 1946, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) was not created until 1950. It took some years after World War II before major support of medical research by government agencies became available. Until then private foundations such as the NFIP and the Rockefeller Foundation played a leading role in funding medical research. By supporting basic research and training and sponsoring virology conferences, the NFIP helped build the fields of virology and molecular and cellular biology while developing a solution to the polio problem.

At the request of FDR, O'Connor had accepted the presidency of the NFIP in 1946. He soon recruited Harry M. Weaver as director of research. Although Weaver had himself done some work on polio, he was more talented as an organizer and a catalyst than a researcher. He overhauled the system for funding medical research and should also be credited for attracting Jonas Salk to polio research and introducing him to O'Connor.

Jonas Salk was born in New York on October 28, 1914, in a modest but supportive Jewish family. The oldest of three sons, he took advantage of the educational system open to him and many other gifted Jewish boys. He graduated from the highly competitive College of the City of New York (CCNY) in 1934 and earned his M.D. from the New York University (NYU) College of Medicine in 1939. Moreover, he supplemented his medical education with fellowships that introduced him to medical research. In 1938 Thomas Francis had become head of the Department of Bacteriology at NYU and he became Salk's mentor. Francis, a pioneer in the field of influenza, had worked for several years at the Rockefeller Institute, where he had isolated the virus. In his lab at NYU he was working on an influenza vaccine. He believed that a killed virus could produce an effective vaccine. This was contrary to the belief of most virologists, who assumed that a natural infection with a live virus was required, even if it were only a mild infection by a weak or "attenuated" virus. During his last year of medical school Salk worked with Francis on early experiments with killed influenza virus.

By the time he graduated Salk had distinguished himself not only as a gifted clinician, but also as a dedicated medical researcher. This won him a prestigious internship at Mount Sinai Hospital. When his internship ended in fall 1941, finding an attractive research position in New York proved to be a major problem. Thomas Francis had just moved to the University of Michigan as chairman of the Epidemiology Department, and Salk inquired whether a position might be available in his new laboratory. His only option was to obtain a fellowship to support an appointment with Francis, at least for one year. A strong letter of recommendation from Francis won Salk a National Research Council fellowship. However, in December of that year the United States entered World War II and Salk was to be drafted into the military. Again upon Francis's recommendation, Salk obtained an occupational deferment, and he arrived at the University of Michigan in early 1942.

Francis's lab was well supported by the army as well as a hefty grant from the NFIP. Salk spent six years in the lab with Francis, during which he assumed increasing responsibilities. By the end of the war, however, he was still only a poorly paid research associate, and he was getting impatient. In 1946 he finally became assistant professor, but by then he was exploring possibly better jobs elsewhere. He was confident that he had learned all he needed from his work with Francis: the principle of killed-virus vaccines, the use of formaldehyde to kill viruses and of adjuvants to stimulate the immune response, and the large-scale controlled human trials as practiced on soldiers for the influenza vaccine experiments. He was grateful to his mentor but eager to be on his own.

Eventually, in 1947, he heard of an opening at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), where the main attraction was independence. Pittsburgh was then a grimy and provincial city, but the community was wealthy and planning a renaissance. William McEllroy, the dean of the School of Medicine, was very supportive of research, but the academic position he had to offer was complicated. Salk would be hired as an associate research professor of bacteriology, an appointment shared between the School of Medicine and the Division of Research. The organization was "a bit loose," as the relationship between the Division of Research and the Medical School was "a little difficult." It was unclear to whom Salk would report. This administrative confusion was perfect for Jonas because the absence of clear rules gave him a measure of control.


Excerpted from Genesis of the Salk Institute by Suzanne Bourgeois. Copyright © 2013 Suzanne Bourgeois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Roger Guillemin

Preface and Acknowledgments

The Characters


Prologue: The Greatest Generation

1. Before and after Ann Arbor

2. Doctor Polio Meets Doctor Atomic

3. Enter Leo Szilard

4. Atoms in Biology

5. What Was It about La Jolla?

6. The Pasteur Connection

7. The Spirit of Paris

8. Our Dear Kahn Building

9. Pioneering

10. The McCloy Boys

11. Biology in Human Affairs

12. A Napoleon from Byzantium

Epilogue: Fifty Years Later





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