The Polio Pio­neer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine

Lin­da Elovitz Mar­shall, Lisa Anchin (illus.)

  • Review
By – December 15, 2020

The Polio Pio­neer is a pic­ture book biog­ra­phy of Dr. Jonas Salk, and it arrives at a cru­cial moment. Best known as the sci­en­tist who devel­oped an effec­tive vac­cine against the polio virus, his life ded­i­ca­tion to erad­i­cat­ing dis­ease is an essen­tial sub­ject for young read­ers. From ear­ly child­hood and on, Salk’s con­vic­tion that reliance on rea­son and hard work would bring about the bet­ter­ment of the human con­di­tion defined his approach to achiev­ing his goals. The book frames his ear­ly life with­in Jew­ish val­ues and cul­ture, while also empha­siz­ing how his sci­en­tif­ic suc­cess­es were uni­ver­sal in their scope, pro­tect­ing chil­dren around the world.

The Polio Pio­neer opens with a shelf of glass bot­tles and beakers, del­i­cate­ly col­ored and care­ful­ly spaced to pro­duce the snap­shot effect of a busy lab­o­ra­to­ry. The book is about Salk but is also a trib­ute to the sci­en­tif­ic method, explained on an acces­si­ble lev­el. Cen­tral to the sto­ry is Elovitz Marshall’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Salk’s per­son­al­i­ty. The author enters Salk’s con­scious­ness when, as a young boy, he watch­es a World War I vic­to­ry parade, assert­ing that he feels less excite­ment than sor­row at the sight of so many wound­ed sol­diers; Jonas Salk was a kid who saw things dif­fer­ent­ly,” the author sum­ma­rizes. A scene of chil­dren engaged in New York City street games of stick­ball and jacks shows Salk qui­et­ly read­ing, accom­pa­nied by the expla­na­tion that oth­er chil­dren asked him to be the ref­er­ee because of his knowl­edge and fair­ness. Anchin’s pic­tures of Salk as an almost preter­nat­u­ral­ly mature child — his nose in a book while oth­ers play or patient­ly teach­ing Eng­lish to his Yid­dish-speak­ing moth­er — sup­port the idea that Salk’s sense of dif­fer­ence was an intrin­sic part of his future suc­cess. This inter­pre­ta­tion com­mu­ni­cates the impor­tance of indi­vid­u­al­i­ty and persistence.

The book insists on the impor­tance of Salk’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty to his career as a sci­en­tist. Since the book is aimed at a young audi­ence, the dis­tinc­tion between reli­gious obser­vance and cul­tur­al Judaism is min­i­mized. Beau­ti­ful images of the young Salk wear­ing tefill­in and pray­ing with his father, and of a tra­di­tion­al hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tion viewed from the win­dow of his family’s urban apart­ment build­ing infuse read­ers with a sense of pride in Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. These scenes are quite typ­i­cal of Jew­ish Amer­i­can life at the time; their con­nec­tion to Salk’s lat­er life may not be as direct as the author implies. On the oth­er hand, the author pro­vides accu­rate infor­ma­tion that City Col­lege, when Salk stud­ied there, was a haven for Jew­ish stu­dents denied access to pri­vate insti­tu­tions with Jew­ish quo­tas. The young sci­en­tist would undoubt­ed­ly have been aware of the lim­i­ta­tions placed on him because of his identity.

Anchin’s illus­tra­tions also com­bine fact and fic­tion in a sub­tle and effec­tive way. She cap­tures the scourge of polio in a hos­pi­tal scene where nurs­es make rounds in a room full of strick­en chil­dren. Each child has a col­or­ful blan­ket with a unique pat­tern, pre­serv­ing their indi­vid­u­al­i­ty. Anoth­er pic­ture shows Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt sit­ting in his wheel­chair in the White House — although he was vir­tu­al­ly nev­er pho­tographed that way because of the stig­ma asso­ci­at­ed with dis­abil­i­ty. Anchin also includes peo­ple of diverse races and back­grounds in many scenes, from chil­dren lined up to be vac­ci­nat­ed, to sci­en­tists work­ing togeth­er at the Salk Insti­tute. In today’s world of dis­in­for­ma­tion and divi­sive attacks on sci­ence and its prac­ti­tion­ers, Elovitz Mar­shall and Anchin have cre­at­ed an uplift­ing nar­ra­tive about improv­ing the world through both genius and the spir­it of cooperation.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book includes an Author’s Note” with fur­ther infor­ma­tion about polio and how Elovitz Mar­shall became com­mit­ted to telling Salk’s story.

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.

Discussion Questions