Thank You, Dr. Salk!: The Sci­en­tist Who Beat Polio and Healed the World 

Dean Rob­bins, Mike Dut­ton (Illus­tra­tor)

  • Review
By – July 26, 2021

The open­ing pages of Thank You, Dr. Salk! intro­duce young read­ers to an era when the polio virus rou­tine­ly sick­ened and dis­abled chil­dren and some adults. Dean Rob­bins’ words and Mike Dutton’s illus­tra­tions dra­ma­tize this ongo­ing threat, when those strick­en by the ill­ness, if they sur­vived, were left strug­gling On canes. On crutch­es. In wheel­chairs.” This grate­ful biog­ra­phy of pio­neer­ing sci­en­tist Jonas Salk rein­forces sev­er­al impor­tant mes­sages, one of which is that vac­cines save lives. Intel­lec­tu­al­ly gift­ed and deter­mined indi­vid­u­als like Dr. Salk can make the world a safer place through devel­op­ing tech­nolo­gies tar­get­ed at solv­ing seem­ing­ly intractable prob­lems. Rob­bins and Dut­ton also empha­size that eth­i­cal val­ues that under­lie sci­en­tif­ic progress.

Cop­ing strate­gies for life dur­ing a polio epi­dem­ic were of lim­it­ed suc­cess. Social dis­tanc­ing, espe­cial­ly avoid­ing beach­es and parks dur­ing sum­mer when out­breaks were most com­mon, made life even more mis­er­able. Dut­ton depicts a girl and her moth­er; the girl looks fright­ened and her moth­er averts her eyes, appear­ing defeat­ed. Then the young Jonas Salk appears, a con­fi­dent child super­hero in big glass­es, with hands assertive­ly on his hips. In response to the ques­tion of who would stop this scourge, Rob­bins assures read­ers that He would stop it!” While the descrip­tion of Salk as a lone genius might seem sim­plis­tic, the author places the boy’s com­mit­ment to solve prob­lems as the core Jew­ish val­ue of tikkun olam, repair­ing the world. Dutton’s series of pic­tures por­tray Salk first as a child, lat­er a col­lege stu­dent and med­ical stu­dent, and, in 1947, as a vac­cine researcher. The same over­sized glass­es appear on his matur­ing form, point­ing out that the adult sci­en­tist still has the curios­i­ty of the inquis­i­tive child.

Spe­cif­ic ele­ments of Salk’s polio research involve com­bin­ing three dif­fer­ent types of the virus in one vac­cine. Rob­bins accu­rate­ly, if briefly, presents the risks of exper­i­men­ta­tion and notes that Salk him­self, as well as his wife and sons, vol­un­teered to par­tic­i­pate in the tri­als. He also con­veys the tremen­dous excite­ment at Salk’s progress, as well as the glob­al nature of polio pan­demics and the neces­si­ty of reach­ing peo­ple all over the world. Bright col­ors and geo­met­ric forms char­ac­ter­ize Dutton’s pic­tures, with peo­ple of dif­fer­ent races and ages cel­e­brat­ing. City streets filled with neigh­bor­hood shops specif­i­cal­ly named, such as Oxford Bak­ery,” and CR Saul Gro­ceries Meats,” give a touch of real­ism to a sto­ry about broad themes of hope and progress. The vol­ume of let­ters that Salk received is visu­al­ized as a curv­ing line of small fig­ures, each an indi­vid­ual whose life had been mea­sur­ably improved by the intro­duc­tion of an effec­tive vac­cine against polio. The infor­ma­tion that One let­ter was two hun­dred feet long and signed by an entire town!” allows chil­dren to grasp the mag­ni­tude of Salk’s contribution.

Jonas Salk was a bril­liant and ded­i­cat­ed sci­en­tist. His ded­i­ca­tion to world-chang­ing research may have been less influ­enced by spe­cif­ic reli­gious teach­ing than by the work­ing-class Jew­ish val­ues of his par­ents, for whom edu­ca­tion was the key to suc­cess in Amer­i­ca. Nonethe­less, it is impor­tant to iden­ti­fy Salk’s Jew­ish roots, giv­en that study, indi­vid­ual effort, and belong­ing to a com­mu­ni­ty were for­ma­tive to his accom­plish­ments. His life sto­ry will intro­duce read­ers to a dis­tant era and a past pan­dem­ic; they will eas­i­ly rec­og­nize its rel­e­vance to the world today. Salk’s courage and bril­liance may have been excep­tion­al, but his life sto­ry offers hope for the future.

Thank You, Dr. Salk! is a high­ly rec­om­mend­ed biog­ra­phy which includes an author’s note with his­tor­i­cal back­ground infor­ma­tion, an expla­na­tion of How a Vac­cine Fights a Virus,” a time­line, and a list of resources.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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