The University Record, April 17, 1995

Historic figure of past looks to future

Historic figure of past looks to future

By Jared Blank

In an address last week at Rackham Auditorium commemorating the 40th anniversary of the announcement of a successful polio vaccine, Jonas Salk reflected on his role in what many consider to be the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century, and played the part of philosopher looking at the future of knowledge in the coming age.

"I do not want undue emphasis to be placed on my contributions," Salk remarked. "I happened to be in the right place at the right time."

Standing at the same podium used when the announcement was made in 1955, Salk gave a talk that cast him in the role of "philosopher" as much as it did "scientist." Salk used the search for the polio vaccine as a story "that can serve as a model for what is possible." Rather than simply re-tell the story of the vaccine's discovery, Salk used it as a parable to implore the audience to "keep on trying to improve on what we already know."

Showing a slide of his "Periodic Table of Human Experience," Salk told the audience the slide showed that people must recognize that "the quality of the human mind will be influenced by what happens early in life." People must instill the importance of education to children early in life, Salk believes, because "we are entering the millennium of the mind."

"I sometimes think that we are suffering from wisdom deficiency syndrome," Salk quipped, defining wisdom as the capacity to look at the past and base our future judgments upon what we see. He believes that people often do not bother to look back at the past to see how it will affect the future.

He later noted that many mothers fail to have their children properly vaccinated even though it will improve the health of their child. People can actively take charge of their lives, he argues. "We are products of evolution ... who have the capacity to participate in the process." We are not simply watching life take its course. "We are looking into and trying to create the future," he said.

It is important to develop the mind, Salk argued, because this will allow people to have the wisdom to learn from the past. "There is a necessity for us to behave in a way so that we are looked back upon as wise, rather than profligate, ancestors," he implored. "It is up to us to choose what we want to do ... the reward is the opportunity to do more."

Forty years after his first triumph, Salk continues his groundbreaking work in immunology, searching for a cure for the HIV virus. Although he could not promise an AIDS vaccine in the near future, Salk was optimistic about the prospect of conquering the virus. "We will figure out how to deal with the [HIV] virus ... I cannot imagine that we will not overcome."

Summing up his philosophy, Salk said, "Let us hope and aspire to a new reality for our children and our children's children for the generations to come."