Dr. Jonas Salk, the Knight in a White Lab Coat: An Interview with Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

Historians/History
tags: interview, Jonas Salk, Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs



Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles also have appeared in Crosscut, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, and others. He has a special interest in the history of medicine, and particularly in brain research history. His email: robinlindley@gmail.com. Click here to view a list of his other interviews.

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs - Anderson Graphics Inc., Van Nuys, California



"The work of Dr. Salk is in the highest tradition of selfless and dedicated medical research." -- Dwight D. Eisenhower, Presenting Dr. Jonas Salk with a Presidential Citation, 1955

In the early 1950s, studies showed that the fear of polio in the United States was second only to the fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Newsreels and print stories were rife with images of paralyzed children encased in iron lungs or struggling to walk on crutches with leg braces, the victims of a disease that crippled and killed at random.

And parents everywhere understandably dreaded this crippling illness that most often struck children and young adults. Polio was incurable and attacked all social classes, from the very poor to the American aristocracy, including the man who led the nation through the Great Depression and the Second World War, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who downplayed his inability to walk with the complicity of his family, aides and the media.

But, on the tenth anniversary of the death of FDR, April 12, 1955, a medical press conference announced that “Polio is Conquered,” the result of a successful vaccine to prevent polio developed by a 40-year-old research physician, Dr. Jonas Salk. A grateful public celebrated Dr. Salk, the “Knight in a White Lab Coat,” but many colleagues in the world of science were much less enthusiastic.

In her new biography Jonas Salk: A Life (Oxford University Press), Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, tells the story of this complicated American icon and idealistic physician-scientist who, from childhood, wanted to perform a noble act that would leave the world a better place. In creating this magisterial work, Dr. Jacobs spent years exploring archives that were not open to the public and conducting dozens of interviews with Dr. Salk’s family, friends and associates.

Dr. Jacobs details the early life of Dr. Salk and his overlooked discovery of an influenza vaccine and she untangles the complicated story of his creation of the first successful polio vaccine. After the announcement of the vaccine, as Dr. Jacobs writes, Dr. Salk received public admiration, numerous awards and extensive press coverage, but failed to gain the acknowledgement of the scientific community he so desired. She also recounts his relationship with Dr. Albert Sabin, a colleague and seeming rival who developed an oral polio vaccine.

Based on her original research, Dr. Jacobs also recounts Dr. Salk’s life after the flurry of celebrity in the mid-1950s: his establishment of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California despite adversity; his pioneering research including work on AIDS; his regrets and continued search for ways to improve the world; his philosophical writings; lingering controversies; the price of fame; and his troubled personal life and desire to make meaningful connections with other people.

Dr. Jacobs’s new book on Dr. Salk has been praised for its compelling narrative, extensive research, eloquence, and clear explanation of clinical and scientific material, and it has been described as the “definitive biography” of Dr. Salk. Professor of Medicine and award-winning author Dr. Abraham Verghese commented: “I daresay that it is only with this book that we come close to understanding [Salk’s] complexities and seeing who he really was. This is an astonishing and beautifully written piece of work by an accomplished biographer. Some books are written for the times, but this one is for the ages.” And Kirkus honored the book with a starred review, describing it as an “extraordinarily rich biography of the doctor Americans adored and all but regarded as a saint,” and adding that “Jacobs makes a convincing case that Salk was a shy man who never succeeded in making the scientific or personal connections that could bring happiness, but his idealism proved a boon to mankind."

Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, M.D. is the Ben and A. Jess Shenson Professor of Medicine (Emerita) at Stanford University where she taught and served as Senior Associate Dean and as Director of the Clinical Cancer Center. Her specialty is cancer research and treatment and she has published ninety scientific articles and three clinical books.

Her first biography, Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease, was widely praised and named one of the “Five Best Books” on doctors’ lives by the Wall Street Journal. She is also a playwright. With Michael Sally, Dr. Jacobs co-authoredJust My TYPE, the book for a musical comedy based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® assessment, with music and lyrics by Emmy winner Rita Abrams.

Dr. Jacobs lives with her husband in Palo Alto where she currently cares for cancer patients at the Palo Alto Veterans Medical Center.

Dr. Jacobs graciously responded by email to a series of questions on her work and the life of Dr. Jonas Salk. She also wrote a previous article on Dr. Salk for the History News Network entitled “5 Things You May Not Know about Jonas Salk.” 

Robin Lindley: Dr. Jacobs, you’re a physician and professor of medicine emerita at Stanford with expertise in medical oncology. How did you decide to become a writer and then create acclaimed biographies both of the renowned Dr. Jonas Salk and also of Dr. Henry Kaplan, a pioneering cancer researcher?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: When I was a child, my family regularly had outings to the library. Biography and memoir were among my favorite books, and Bobbs-Merrill satisfied my appetite with a series of orange-covered biographies for youths. I never considered a writing career, however; I wanted to be a doctor.

During my internship in medicine, I encountered countless patient stories. It was the patients, not my professors, who taught me to be a doctor. I started writing a memoir about that experience and soon realized that my writing skills hadn’t changed since freshman college English. So during my first sabbatical at Stanford University, I took a creative writing course.

Shortly thereafter, Henry Kaplan, a famed physician-scientist who changed the course of cancer therapy by developing one of the first linear accelerators and who cured Hodgkin’s disease, died rapidly from lung cancer. I wanted to tell the story of this multifaceted, controversial man.While continuing my medical career, I began weekly tutorials with a master of creative writing, Ehud Havazelet. They spanned a decade, resulting in Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease.

I went from being hooked on reading biography as a child to being hooked on writing biography as an adult. I was ready to begin again, this time with my childhood hero—Jonas Salk.

Robin Lindley: How do your skills as a physician and medical researcher inform your work as a biographer?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: In order to recount Salk’sstruggles with the scientific community, it’s crucial to appreciate the attitudes prevalent in the profession at that time. Having spent my entire career at a research university, I understand the academic world in which Salk lived, the unwritten rules of conduct, the sources of power, and the types of scientists with whom he interacted—their brilliance and their competitiveness. As a physician, I am conversant with the science of vaccines and the diseases Salk pursued: influenza, poliomyelitis, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and AIDS. My challenge, of course, was making his research comprehensible and engaging to the reader.

Robin Lindley: How did you choose to write about the celebrated physician Dr. Salk for your second major biography?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: When on April 12, 1955, his vaccine was announced to be a success, Jonas Salk became one of the greatest heroes of my generation. Over the years I wondered what happened to Salk. Having reached acclaim at age forty, what did he do for an encore? His life seemed strewn with controversy. When I found no formal biography to enlighten me, I set out to write one.

When asked what he wanted his biographer to write about him, Salk replied, “the truth.” Yet he had forged a protective shield, making it difficult to comprehend the paradoxes and questions surrounding his life: Salk presented a calm demeanor to the world while carrying enormous inner burdens. He loathed conflict but was surrounded by controversy. He longed to be accepted but challenged prevailing norms with an unremitting tenacity. Who was this man who was drawn to and repelled by fame, who was called powerful/weak, innocent/calculating, candid/secretive, passionate/emotionally detached, noble/egotistical? Those were some of the questions I set out to answer.

Robin Lindley: You had access to a trove of information on Dr. Salk that was not previously available to the public. What was your research process and what new information did you find?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: To begin, I read quite a number of books in which Salk played a major role—mostly those on polio, AIDS, and the Salk Institute—to get a general outline of his life. I sought permission from his three sons to read his extensive Archives, housed at the University of California, San Diego, which were closed to the general public. At the March of Dimes headquarters in White Plains, New York, I reviewed archival material on the polio saga and Salk Institute, viewed photos, and obtained video-taped presentations and interviews, learning how he talked, looked, and interacted with others. I read every paper and book that he wrote, as well as his letters and his available night notes.

At the same time, I conducted over a hundred interviews, including family; high school, college and medical school classmates; scientists from each of his research endeavors; Nobel Prize laureates; those involved in the founding of the Salk Institute; journalists who covered his work; his wife Francois Gilot; his lovers, friends, and detractors—many now deceased. They gave me numerous anecdotes, which made his life more vivid and gave me a more intimate picture of this almost impenetrable man.

Robin Lindley: How did the new material on Dr. Salk add to his story? What were some surprises for you in your research?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: While doing my research, I started writing—shaping and reshaping the biography—and I felt as if I had entered my studio and found a large pile of clay. As I started to sculpt my subject, each piece of new information led me to reconfigure parts of him. I found a great deal of new information about Salk that helped me understand how his character developed, what drove him, how he was changed by fame, his deep loneliness, his need for connection and companionship that was never fully satisfied, and how, despite the derogation, he remained idealistic until the day he died.

Robin Lindley: To me, it seems that Dr. Salk in his youth and even in his early days as a physician was an unlikely candidate for worldwide celebrity. What are a few things you’d like people to know about Dr. Salk before he became famous for his polio vaccine?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: Jonas Salk was born into a Russian Jewish immigrant family on October 28, 1914 in East Harlem. From his ancestors, who had fled the pogroms, he inherited a fierce tenacity which would come to define him. His mother told him he was born with a caul which meant he was destined to do great things—quite unlikely for this reserved, physically inept, bright but not brilliant boy. He prayed that one day he would perform some noble deed. His brothers referred to him as “Little Jesus,” but Jonas ignored them; by age twelve, he trusted in his destiny.

Initially Jonas wanted to be a lawyer, but his mother pointed out that he could never win an argument with her. Subsequently he became intrigued by the sciences and determined to be a doctor, for the first time defying his mother, who said he was too weak and should be a teacher. Jonas knew his mediocre grades—an overall B- average—along with the tacit Jewish quotas wouldprobably bar him from most medical schools. One item on his application did differentiate him—his aspirations. He didn’t plan to be a practitioner, as was the usual career for most graduates; he planned to bring science into medicine. And he did. The caption under his photograph in the student yearbook noted his extensive research experience and predicted: “At present rate, will be professor of medicine in about 2 years.”

Robin Lindley: You note that you were a “Polio Pioneer”—among the first children to receive the Salk vaccine. What was your experience? Why were Americans so afraid of polio then, in the early fifties?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: Prior to Salk’s vaccine, poliomyelitis cast a shadow over almost every summer, the time of the year when epidemics erupted. What made it particularly frightful was that the disease had a predilection for children. No one could predict which town or which child would be the crippler’s next victim; whether he or she would suffer a weak arm or useless legs; whether a child would recover or remain paralyzed for life; whether he or she would die from suffocation. Newspapers and magazines carried pictures of children struggling with braces, children entombed in iron lungs. At movie houses, newsreels which preceded the main attraction, reported on thousands of innocent children paralyzed. To make matters worse, there was no effective treatment and no way to prevent its devastation.

In 1954, the March of Dimes initiated a national trial, involving over a million children, to test the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. My hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee was selected as a test site. On April 26, I rolled up my sleeve, gritted my teeth, and became one of the first to receive the polio vaccine. I was proud to be called a polio pioneer. As compensation I received a polio pioneer button, a red lollypop, and the hope that I would be spared.

Robin Lindley: The virtual lack of informed consent from parents whose children received the Salk vaccine may surprise readers today. There were trials at several schools and institutions, then massive vaccinations of millions of children in 1954. How do you see that time of trust in authority?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: Salk did obtain consent for his polio vaccine trials, although the forms were quite abbreviated compared to informed consent today. For his initial trial, the administrator of the Watson Home for Crippled Children contacted parents to sign the following:

I have been informed that Dr. Jonas E. Salk ...with the financial support of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, Inc., has inaugurated in the D. T. Watson Home ... a project for test purposes in connection with a study of infantile paralysis, its causes, remedies, and prevention.... It is proposed to inject into children a poliomyelitis vaccine that has previously been injected into animals without subsequent harm.... To assist in this project I hereby consent that the preparations above mentioned may be injected into my child.


For the large national trial, conducted by the March of Dimes, teachers sent over a million children home with notes from Basil O’Connor, Director of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), which began, “This is one of the most important projects in medical history. Its success depends on the cooperation of parents. We feel sure you will want your child to take part.”

Today Salk would have to submit an Investigational New Drug application (IND) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) providing detailed laboratory data and a clinical protocol for human testing. His use of children as subjects would complicate the process as historical misuse of minors has resulted in stricter federal requirements. An Institutional Review Board (IRB) must approve a consent form at each testing site. Compared to Salk’s initial one-paragraph consent, today’s run 20+ pages in length, requiring provisions to solicit assent of the child.

Regarding “trust in authority,” recall that prior to 1955, the public was desperate to have a vaccine to prevent their children from being paralyzed or killed by polio. Americans came together to fund the NFIP, which was called "the most intensive and comprehensive attack on a single disease ever launched by a private agency anywhere in the world.”

The national field trial was a costly endeavor, supported solely through the March of Dimes. O’Connor set seventy-five million dollars as his fundraising goal for 1954. To accomplish this, three million volunteers from 3,100 National Foundation chapters across America joined forces. The trial was not conducted by professional research teams but by volunteers: 20,000 physicians and public health officials, 40,000 nurses, 14,000 elementary school principals, 50,000 teachers, and 220,000 others. This was the public’s trial, supported and conducted by them.

Robin Lindley: I thought it was unfortunate that Dr. Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin were in competition rather than working in collaboration. How do you see their relationship and what it says about scientific research?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: Initially Salk and Sabin began working together with a collaborative spirit, both funded by the NFIP and members of its Committee on Immunization. Under Sabin’s direction, their first task was to determine how many different types of polio virus existed—a prerequisite for making a vaccine. Early on, Sabin took a gracious stance, acting like a mentor. He signed letters to Salk, “with all good wishes” and “kindest personal regards.” At meetings, the two often stayed up talking until after midnight. With time, Salk felt constrained by the Committee and its timeline. He made a killed-virus vaccine and began testing his vaccine in secret.

At that time, most virologists believed that only live viruses could provide lifetime protection by inducing a low-grade, almost imperceptible infection. Salk thought that a killed virus, although it had lost its ability to cause infection, could still stimulate production of antibodies.

The press began to portray Sabin and Salk as adversaries, racing to see who would make medical history. In this alleged rivalry, Sabin was often depicted as the villain who repeatedly maligned Salk behind his back. Letters between them suggest otherwise. When Sabin wrote to a prominent pediatrician criticizing Salk’s vaccine, he sent Salk a copy, penciling at the top: “This is for your information so you’ll know what I am saying behind your back…. Love and kisses are being saved up, Albert.” Those close to Salk never heard him make a derogatory comment about Sabin. “The race was a myth,” Salk’s research assistant said. At that point in time, a rivalry was brewing between two scientific principles, not between two scientists.

In the early sixties, the US Public Health Service replaced Salk’s vaccine with Sabin’s oral vaccine, made of live, weakened polio virus. Concerned that a live virus could become more virulent and cause polio, Salk began petitioning the major medical decision-makers, trying to reverse what he considered a dangerous decision. Sabin struck back, and reporters portrayed this debate as a medical feud. Late in life, Salk told a friend he hoped his future biographer would emphasize the difference in their ideas and not trivialize their conduct as “two little Jewish boys from the Bronx fighting it out.”

Of course there is rivalry in scientific research; it occurred during Pasteur’s time, and it does today. There is competition for funding, laboratory space, publications, academic positions, prizes, and fame. Driven by the latter, Sabin boasted to a reporter that he had made the vaccine, not a vaccine that eliminated polio. Salk had a more humanitarian attitude, feeling from childhood that his life’s duty was to aid mankind. Four years after he died, the US government recalled the Sabin vaccine, replacing it with a newer version of Salk’s vaccine.

Robin Lindley: Dr. Salk became an iconic figure with the success of his vaccine but was not recognized by the scientific community as he desired. Why did many in the scientific community snub him?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: It started on the day the polio vaccine’s success was announced at the Ann Arbor Symposium. “Hoopla,” “circus,” and other derogatory terms were used to describe the event and its attendant publicity. The traditional methods by which investigators critically review discoveries had been violated, others carped. Although Salk had not participated in planning the event, many blamed him for its lack of decorum. He was accused of showmanship, selfishness, greediness. What underlay these aspersions?

As I noted in my prior article, this young researcher, not yet a member of the scientific brotherhood, had made and initially tested the polio vaccine in secret while challenging one of their firmly held principles—that only a vaccine made of live virus could impart lifelong immunity as had been the case with smallpox.

Some resented his close relationship with Basil O’Connor, the powerful director of the March of Dimes, who propelled this relative unknown over the heads of senior scientists, facilitating his preparation and testing of the first effective polio vaccine. They called Salk “the chosen.”

Others complained that Salk had grabbed the limelight, neglecting to mention those who had laid the groundwork for his vaccine. Although he tried to share the credit, newsmen had used Salk to personify the events surrounding the polio story and in doing so had turned him into a national icon.

And let’s not discount envy; Salk achieved a level of celebrity accorded few scientists in the history of medicine.

Salk did contribute to his own rejection with his unconventional approach to science—his emphasis on intuition and abstract principles, matched by a convoluted manner of writing and a love of metaphor. He reached out to the public, responding to hundreds of letters, addressing their concerns on radio and television, giving interviews for Parent and Life magazines. In other words, he didn’t behave like an academic scientist.

Robin Lindley: Renowned journalist Edward R. Murrow asked Dr. Salk who owned the patent on his vaccine and Dr. Salk said it belongs to the people. Wasn’t that beneficence unusual then?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: On the evening of April 12, 1955, the day the world celebrated the prevention of polio, Edward R. Murrow interviewed Jonas Salk and Thomas Francis, Jr. on television. Salk told Murrow that he could not take sole credit for the vaccine, that his success had been built on the work of others. As if the public didn’t love him enough, when Murrow asked who owned the patent for the vaccine, Salk replied, "Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?" The public interpreted this as beneficence, many scientists as self-adulation. In truth, no scientist could hold a patent for work done with funding from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

Robin Lindley: How did the Cold War affect US science and the search for a cure for polio? Wasn’t it odd that Dr. Sabin tested his oral vaccine on Russian children in the late 1950s?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: While the world press was praising Salk, a letter to the editor of a major international paper alleged that Russian scientist Josef Salkoff had made a polio vaccine in 1945. It read: “There has been a false impression created by false propaganda that the American Imperialist, Dr. Jonas Salk, discovered the vaccine.”

The relationship between scientists was far more cordial. Mikhail Chumakov of Moscow’s Poliomyelitis Research Institute had visited Salk’s lab in the fall of 1956, after which they communicated regularly. Chumakov invited Salk to visit the USSR to discuss a vaccination program, but his marital problems made it impossible for him to go. Instead, Sabin, with his Russian roots and fluency in the language, collaborated with Chumakov and Anatoli Smorodintsev, director of virology at the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences in Leningrad, to initiate what would become the landmark trials for his oral vaccine. Both Russians later received the Lenin Prize for their work.

Robin Lindley: After the success of his vaccine, Dr. Salk established an institute with the goal of bridging science and the humanities. However, many scientists didn’t share Salk’s attempt to combine the arts and science. How do you see his institute? Do you think scientists now are more open to the interdisciplinary research Dr. Salk envisioned? I was surprised that even the eminent humanist and scientist Jacob Bronowski scoffed at Salk’s undertaking at the institute.

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: Inspired by Sir Charles Percy Snow’s Two Cultures, Salk dreamed of creating a utopian institute where scientists and humanists would work side by side, imbuing the sciences with the conscience of man. Most of his initial group of distinguished scientists were enamored of the idea, and enthusiasm ran high as they left prestigious academic posts to follow Salk’s dream.

Jacob Bronowski, later known for his acclaimed The Ascent of Man, told Salk he had changed his life and predicted a lasting friendship. Salk, however, made a number of blunders, which created a chasm between him and the others: He maintained control over what was conceived of as a community, yet his administrative skills were lacking, bringing the Institute to the brink of bankruptcy. In the name of fundraising, he seemed to pander to the press, embarrassing the scholars, and he kept his financial deals with Basil O’Connor private. Finally, his subsequent scientific and philosophic work did not measure up to that of others at the Institute.

In time, with new leadership and Bronowski’s death, the humanistic aspect of the Institute was phased out. No one would contest that the Salk Institute remains one of the world’s premier research institutes today. “It’s only half my dream, the biology half of my dream,” Salk said late in life. “The humanity half of my dream has not been fulfilled.”

Robin Lindley: What were some of Dr. Salk’s major achievements in the four decades after his successful polio vaccine in the 1950s?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: Salk’s historical role in preventing polio overshadowed his other scientific endeavors.

Just out of medical training, prior to his polio work, young Salk and senior virologist Thomas Francis, Jr. at the University of Michigan developed the first vaccine that could prevent influenza for which Salk got little credit. They soon found that influenza virus had several strains which could mutate, making prospects for a single vaccine remote. Salk devised a way to put several strains into one vaccine. Impeded by the political maneuverings of senior scientists, however, he abandoned this area of research soon after he began his polio work.

Following a serendipitous lab result, Salk began to tackle multiple sclerosis in the mid- sixties. He tried to halt its progressive debility by concocting a therapeutic agent that manipulated the immune system. Although his initial trials looked promising, he hit a blind alley, and short of research funds, left this field of endeavor.

In his seventies, disturbed by the number of young men dying of a mysterious disease, Salk entered the AIDS arena. Some dismissed his efforts as those of an old man attempting to recapture his former glory. Others called him innovative and his entry into the AIDS arena a noble gesture. He played the crucial role of Solomon, mediating a dispute between two star scientists who claimed to have discovered the AIDS virus, thus averting an international incident.

When few researchers were considering therapeutic interventions, waiting until they had deciphered how HIV destroys the immune system, Salk charged forward, knowing thousands would die for every year of procrastination. He helped form a company, Immune Response, and designed a treatment vaccine to delay the time between infection with the virus and development of full-blown AIDS. Although his first trial looked promising, he had reached an impasse with the FDA at the time of his death.

Robin Lindley: Dr. Salk is still seen as virtually a saint. Recently, I heard a speaker for a humanitarian group mention him together with Gandhi and Dr. King as model humanitarians. How do you think Dr. Salk should be remembered in terms of his significance as a humanitarian, as a scientist, and as a model for future researchers?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: There is no doubt that Jonas Salk accomplished one of the most important feats in medical history by preventing polio. What makes it all the more remarkable is that he and his small research group, not some large pharmaceutical company or research institute, prepared the vaccine in only three months.

Was Jonas Salk an American saint or a self-absorbed man who connived to assure himself a place in medical history? I believe he was an unconventional scientist, a misunderstood and vulnerable man, driven by an intense desire to aid mankind. One word that defines Salk is idealist. His dreams and ambitions, his drive to solve the problems of the world, however, isolated him. Revered by the public, Salk was snubbed and at times ridiculed by members of the scientific community, characterized by some as a latter-day Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, dreaming the impossible dream. Throughout his life, Jonas Salk challenged prevailing norms with an unremitting tenacity, driven by his yearning to aid mankind, initially oblivious, eventually resigned to the personal cost.

Robin Lindley: You are now an acclaimed biographer and historian of medicine Dr. Jacobs. What are some books or writers that you see as important influences for your writing?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: For biography writing, I constantly refer to two classics: Nigel Hamilton’s How to Do Biography – a Primer and Paul Murray Kendall’s The Art of Biography. For craft, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White is my bible. When I finish a chapter, I search for each of their elements on my S&W checklist to be certain I haven’t broken any of their rules. (One disclaimer: I did not Strunk & White this article.)

I have always read biographies for pleasure and have a long list of favorites, learning from each one about setting the stage with the prologue, introduction of characters, storytelling techniques, use of dialogue, sense of place, the arc, and the ending. Among those I regularly refer to are Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria, David McCullough’s John Adams and Mornings on Horseback, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, A. Scott Berg’s Lindbergh, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time.

Robin Lindley: Are you planning another book now?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: Right now I am spending more time writing and talking about the Salk biography, which is a pleasure since I found Salk an engaging, fascinating man. As I start considering my next book, of which I have a number of candidates, I find the initial research once again invigorating.

Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add about the story of Dr. Salk or about your work and writing?

Dr. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs: Only the author’s name appears on the book’s cover, yet in my acknowledgments, I stress the number of people who made Jonas Salk: A Life possible. Every biographer knows the crucial role played by the archivist, in my case Lynda Claassen at UCSD and David Rose at the March of Dimes Foundation. Essential is the willingness of the family to share their memories. Finally, editor Tim Bent at Oxford University Press should have his name starred and underscored for his invaluable role in shaping the book.

Robin Lindley: Thank you Dr. Jacobs for your thoughtful comments and illuminating insights on your writing and the story of Dr. Salk.




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