Thursday, December 31, 2015

Thoughts on Jacobs' Biography of Salk: Amazing, the resistance even a celebrity scientist still has to overcome...

Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs biography of Jonas Salk is an entertaining read about a singular individual. One learns a lot about a character, associated with great technical achievements. In a sense it is a comparable work to Walter Isaacson's portrayal of Steve Jobs, with the latter being a tech titan and Jacob's portrayal one of a scientist and physician. Salk is arguably one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century. With that said, one learns a lot about the arc of his career from humble beginnings to having one's own institute. It is amazing to find out how much of Salk's career was determined by his benefactors, including Basil O'Connor and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and Armand Hammer. And how his positive and negative relationships with these individuals both helped and hindered him. It was interesting to find that despite his incredible fame, he still was almost thrown out of the door of his own institute by these funders. Also, despite his tremendous fame in the popular press, he never received much scientific recognition.

The book does talk a bit about the technical issues in Salk's work -- in particular debates over the live versus killed virus that dominated the polio years and the unique character of the disease itself, which tends to differentially affect the rich, unlike many other infectious diseases. It also goes a bit into Salk's unique approach for tacking AIDS. That said, the book focuses mostly on Salk's relationships and his dealings with colleagues and less on virology.

Overall, it is a great read if you are interested in science. One gets an intimate view of both the good and bad and I recommend it highly.

Jonas Salk: A Life 1st Edition
by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs