University Library System Acquires Jonas Salk Papers

University Library System Acquires Jonas Salk Papers

The University of Pittsburgh Library System (ULS) is pleased to announce the acquisition of an archival collection documenting the research and career of Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the first successful polio vaccine in the early 1950s while a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh, saving millions of children from crippling disease and death. This collection documents his seminal contribution to medicine as part of the University of Pittsburgh’s Virus Research Lab (VRL) from 1947 to 1960 and his work at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, from 1960 to 1989. This material is part of a larger gift to the University of Pittsburgh by Peter, Darrell, and Jonathan Salk, which comprises laboratory equipment, centrifuges, an incubator, glass flasks, and other items managed by the Graduate School of Public Health.

Dr. Salk’s papers from the VRL include some of his early work on influenza and cancer. The majority concentrates on his polio research, culminating in the national vaccine trial (1954–1955), which had over one million participants—the “Polio Pioneers.” However, Dr. Salk had been conducting safety and effectiveness trials as early as 1952 centered on the D. T. Watson Home, Polk School, and four other institutions, drawing in additional participants from a circle of institutional staff, family, friends, and locals. The collection includes thousands of parental consent forms and index cards tracking patient antibodies for polio over time and dates of vaccinations and boosters. Dr. Salk had also engaged dozens of local schools in a preliminary trial two months before the national trial, making Pittsburgh families the earliest leaders in the effort to save children, all clearly and amply documented in these records. A large collection of newspaper clippings and awards demonstrate his vaccine's widespread positive public reception.

“Historians of science will value detailed research files which track the progress of experiments and the management of equipment, staff, and animal colonies,” says Dr. Jason M. Rampelt, History of Science and Medicine Archivist in the ULS. Even after the release of the vaccine in 1955, Dr. Salk continued to refine his regimen and explore new applications for other diseases. Rampelt also noted that, “this collection sheds new light on Salk’s departure from Pittsburgh in 1960 in archived diary notebooks which reveal his inner thoughts as he struggled to establish his fledgling Salk Institute.” Once established there, Dr. Salk continued research on cancer that he began in Pittsburgh and later in his career extended his work into M.S. and HIV/AIDS.

The acquisition of the Jonas Salk Papers provides new insight into his career and complements the archival collection already at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Furthermore, this collection strengthens the University of Pittsburgh Library System’s broader initiative of documenting Western Pennsylvania’s contributions to advancements in science and medicine.

The Jonas Salk Papers includes 85.4 linear feet of diaries, research data, correspondence, lectures, and photographs and are available for research in Archives & Special Collections at the University of Pittsburgh Library System. Please consult the finding aid for more information or send your inquiries to Ask-an-Archivist.