Ethics & Public Policy Center

Jonas Salk, the People’s Scientist

Published in The New Atlantis - Summer/Fall 2018 issue on December 21, 2018

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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Algis Valiunas is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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