Jonas Edward Salk was an American medical researcher and virologist, best known for his discovery and development of the first successful polio vaccine. He was born in New York City to Jewish parents. Although they had little formal education, his parents were determined to see their children succeed. While attending New York University School of Medicine, Salk stood out from his peers not just because of his academic prowess, but because he went into medical research instead of becoming a practicing physician.
Until 1955, when the Salk vaccine was introduced, polio was considered the most frightening public health problem of the post-war United States. Annual epidemics were increasingly devastating. The 1952 epidemic was the worst outbreak in the nation's history. Of nearly 58,000 cases reported that year, 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis, with most of its victims being children. The "public reaction was to a plague," said historian William O'Neill. "Citizens of urban areas were to be terrified every summer when this frightful visitor returned." According to a 2009 PBS documentary, "Apart from the atomic bomb, America's greatest fear was polio." As a result, scientists were in a frantic race to find a way to prevent or cure the disease. U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt was the world's most recognized victim of the disease and founded the organization that would fund the development of a vaccine.