“Just end it!” I will never forget hearing those words for the first time or the person who spoke them: Jonas Salk. This was the mid-1970s. I was sitting with Dr. Salk in the private office of a mutual friend, tongue-tied through much of our meeting. His Salk vaccine had been the seminal medical discovery of my youth. As David had with Goliath, this humble doctor had slain the giant polio. In such a presence, I struggled to even open my mouth. Finally, though, I summoned my courage and asked the question that had been burning inside me.
“Dr. Salk, how did you conquer polio?”
The question arose from more than curiosity. By then, I had been pursuing a similar mission for fifteen years: to slay my own grim giant, blindness.
I was 19 years old, a junior at Columbia University, when misdiagnosed glaucoma destroyed my optic nerves and robbed me forever of my vision. With the support of my closest friends, family, and then-girlfriend (now-wife Sue), I was able to reenter the world I had left behind. I graduated on schedule with my Columbia class. Advanced degrees followed and an appointment as a White House Fellow under Lyndon Johnson. In time I achieved multiple successes in business and public service and was rewarded with a more than comfortable life.
But through it all, I could never forget the morning after a surgeon in Detroit had put a final seal on my fate by destroying my eyes to save them. Lying in my recovery bed, I promised God that I would do everything in my power to end blindness, forever and for everyone.
Young people in distress often make rash statements, but an unkept promise is a troubling burden, and by the mid-1970s, I was troubled indeed. Blindness arrived by many routes and had plagued humankind since time immemorial. How do you end a scourge so ancient and protean?
Finally, I took my dilemma to a friend far wiser than I, and the next morning he suggested I meet with the one person I could think of who’d had direct experience with such a question.
More than 60 years later, it’s hard to recognize the magnitude of Dr. Salk’s contribution. Not only had he saved the world from polio; he had done so with a humility almost unthinkable in our own time. I recall the April 1955 press conference at which his new vaccine was first announced. A reporter asked Salk who held the patent on this wondrous medicine. His response: “Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
I expected a science-heavy disquisition once I posed my question to this great man. Instead, he jumped straight to the heart of the matter. “Not by focusing on the symptoms or the specific physiological effects,” he told me. “I started with a single objective: to slay the disease. ‘Just end it,’ I told myself. ‘Just end it!’”
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In that moment, I had a revelation that has stayed with me ever since. Progress — in medicine, in science and in history generally — is cumulative, but the great leaps often come because someone has planted a flag in a seemingly unattainable future and compelled the world to arrange its resources in pursuit of the unthinkable.
That’s what Jack Kennedy did with his 1961 promise to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade, and what Martin Luther King Jr. did two years later with his dream of a better us. They boldly posited a more embracing, more daring future, and by doing so, they inspired America and its people to achieve it.
Jonas Salk did the same. He started with the goal — “Just end it!” —and his own research and the broader poliomyelitis research community worked backward from there at a time when, summer after summer, polio seemed to pick off its victims at will. It’s what Sue and I are trying to do as well. This December we will be awarding a $3 million prize not to researchers who are easing the burden of blindness but to those who are working to end it, for everyone, forever.
Today, as the coronavirus pandemic rampages through the world, Dr. Salk’s message is more precious than ever. Whether we’re researchers hunting a vaccine, medical staff on the front lines, or citizens playing our part with social distancing, we have to ignore those who want to divert us into the high weeds of partisanship, keep our eyes on the prize, and arrange our resources and lives to not only cope with COVID-19 but to conquer it. For everyone. Forever.
In short, just end it.
Sanford D. Greenberg is founde
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