This is a tale of the hurt that a junior investigator might feel when a senior investigator takes the lion’s share of the credit for the junior investigator’s crucial breakthroughs. Jonas Salk, who conceived and oversaw the development of the first widely used polio vaccine, is the senior investigator in this anecdote. Julius Youngner, the last surviving member of the original vaccine research team that Salk assembled in the early 1950s at the University of Pittsburgh, is the slighted assistant. Youngner later had his own distinguished career. He passed away in April of this year. Here is their story.
After earning his Ph.D. in microbiology, Youngner was drafted into the World War II U.S. Army, which assigned him to the Manhattan Project, to test the toxicity of uranium salts. Youngner first learned the purpose of the Manhattan Project when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.
After the war, Youngner worked as a commissioned officer for the U.S. Public Health Service. This was a significant stop in his career, since it was there that he first became interested in viruses and cell culture. But, since there was no opportunity for him to pursue that interest in Bethesda, he began to look elsewhere. Thus, it happened in 1949 that Salk recruited Youngner to join his vaccine research team in Pittsburgh, after a mutual acquaintance told Salk that Youngner was eager to work on viruses and cell culture.
Salk hoped that Youngner might find a way to generate enough cells from monkey kidney tissue to support mass-production of the vaccine. Youngner, on his own, then developed the use of the proteolytic enzyme, trypsin, to disperse tissue fragments into individual cells, thereby generating many more cells from a given amount of tissue. Indeed, Youngner could generate enough cells to support manufacture of the vaccine. This was his first key contribution to the vaccine project. “Trypsinization” remains a mainstay of modern cell culture.
Youngner’s next major contribution to the vaccine enterprise was his development of a rapid analytical test that had two crucial applications. First, recalling that the Salk vaccine contains an inactivated virus, Youngner’s so-called “color test” made it possible to quickly screen batches of the vaccine for any live virus that might have survived the inactivation process. Second, Youngner’s test made it possible to quickly test the vaccine’s ability to induce anti-poliovirus antibodies (1). [Youngner based his color test on an earlier observation by John Enders, Tom Weller, and Fred Robbins, that metabolic activity (as indicated by a drop in pH) was less in cultures inoculated with live virus than in control cultures (2, 3). In Youngner’s test, a color change of phenol red, resulting from a shift in pH, served as an indicator of virus activity, or of antibody activity.]
Some sources credit Youngner with having devised the process for inactivating the virus. But, that is correct in a very limited sense only. Salk selected incubation in formalin as the means to disable the virus. In truth, Salk learned of that approach a decade earlier while doing postgraduate studies under Thomas Francis at the University of Michigan. Francis was then using formaldehyde to produce his killed influenza vaccine (2).
What’s more, Salk’s choice of formalin to generate his polio vaccine was bold. Earlier, in the 1930s, Canadian scientist Maurice Brodie tested a formalin-killed polio vaccine in twelve children, with disastrous results. Several of the children developed paralytic poliomyelitis (4).
Clearly, too little exposure to formalin could leave enough live virus to cause paralytic poliomyelitis or death. On the other hand, too much exposure could so badly damage the virus’ proteins that they might no longer induce an immune response against the live virus. Brodie did not have analytical procedures to ensure that he had inactivated his vaccine to safe levels. In contrast, it was clear to Salk that getting the correct balance would be vital to his vaccine project, and Youngner’s color test was the means for doing so. Youngner used his test to determine that six days of incubation in a 1:4,000 formalin solution would result in one live virus particle in 100 million doses of the vaccine (5).
Since Youngner’s inactivation curve was based on only a few data points, and since it was likely that the slope of the curve might flatten out after a time, Salk added a margin of safety of six extra days. Thus produced, the vaccine induced antibody production in monkeys, while showing no signs of causing paralysis or other problems.
By 1954, 800,000 children had been successfully immunized against polio in the first clinical trial of the vaccine. In April 1955, the outcome of the trial would be announced to a very grateful public.
By 1957, Salk’s vaccine team at Pittsburgh was no longer needed, and was dispersing. Salk was making plans to leave Pittsburgh for California, where he would found the prestigious Salk Institute. Youngner, now 34 years-old, remained at Pittsburgh, where he would begin his own distinguished career.
Although Youngner was now independent of Salk, he remained bitter over his former boss’s failure to acknowledge the underlings who had labored so diligently behind the scenes to bring the vaccine to fruition. “The first rule we learned was to call him ‘Dr Salk,’ never Jonas. He would speak to us through a wall of notes and memos…Here was a guy who could always find an hour to brief some reporter at the local Chinese restaurant, but could never find the time to sit down with his own people (6).”
Youngner was particularly appalled by events involving the paper he wrote describing his color test. “After I had what I considered to be a good draft…I gave my copy to Jonas for his comments. It should be noted this was 1954, the pre-Xerox, pre-word-processing era. I had made a working transcript of the paper for my own use and it was this copy that I handed to him. Also, it should be noted that the title page had the authors listed as ‘J.S. Youngner and E.N. Ward (6).’” Elsie Ward, who served as Youngner’s technician, was a zoologist who specialized in growing viruses.
Salk intended to read Youngner’s manuscript while away on a trip. When Salk returned a week later, he claimed that he had lost the manuscript, but that he had jotted down some notes from which he was able to produce a draft of his own. Youngner was rather incredulous that a person as meticulous and disciplined as Salk could lose such an important manuscript. Youngner’s skepticism was further roused by the fact that Salk’s version contained all the data in Youngner’s original manuscript. Salk explained that incongruity, alleging that he found Youngner’s tables, but not the text.
In any case, Youngner was especially upset by a specific change Salk made to the title page of the manuscript: “The authors were now ‘Jonas E. Salk, J.S. Youngner, and Elsie N. Ward.’ When I (Youngner) questioned the change, Jonas said that since he had to reconstruct the whole paper it was only fair that his name go first…It was obvious to me then, and is more so now, that he considered the advance in this paper a major one and he wanted his name associated with it, even though at the time he had done nothing in the lab (no kidding!) or of an advisory nature to initiate or carry out the work (6).”
Youngner could grudgingly accept that project leaders often used their senior position to appear as co-authors, or even principal authors, on papers emanating from their labs, even if their contributions were minimal. What troubled Youngner in this instance was not that Salk pulled rank, but rather his seeming duplicity.
In yet another instance—the 1955 public announcement of the successful outcome of the clinical trial—Youngner again sensed “a pattern of deception on Salk’s part to take undue credit for the discoveries of others (6).” Salk advocated for the announcement to happen at the University of Pittsburgh. However, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (better known as the “March of Dimes”), which funded the vaccine project, chose the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor as the site for the announcement. That was where Michigan professor Thomas Francis supervised the evaluation of the field trial. [Note that the NIH was not able to fund research back then the way it can today. Thus, the polio vaccine project was supported nearly entirely by private donations to the National Foundation.]
Thomas Francis spoke first. Then, when Salk spoke, he acknowledged the more prominent players in the vaccine project, including Thomas Francis, Harry Weaver (director of research at the National Foundation), Tom Rivers (chairman of the advisory committees on research and vaccines for the National Foundation), and Basil O’Connor (law partner of Franklin Roosevelt, recruited by Roosevelt in 1928 to raise funds for polio patients at Roosevelt’s Warm Springs Foundation, and a co-founder with Roosevelt of the National Foundation in 1938; (2)). Salk then acknowledged various deans and trustees at the University of Pittsburgh. Yet, he made no mention whatsoever of his dedicated coworkers in his laboratory. They had been expecting at least some recognition from their boss.
Some of Salk’s defenders argued that Salk had acted in the best scientific tradition by prefacing his printed remarks with the phrase, “From the Staff of the Virus Laboratory by Jonas E. Salk, M.D.” But, this was small consolation to Youngner and others of Salk’s coworkers, who expected to be individually acknowledged for their exhausting work on behalf of the life-saving vaccine. Indeed, they felt betrayed.
At any rate, the 1955 announcement of the success of the polio vaccine field trials was joyously received by the public. And while Youngner remained embittered over Salk’s slighting of his coworkers, he nonetheless understood that from the point of view of the National Foundation, “it was much easier to continue raising money when you have a hero, and they had an enormous public relations department that took up Jonas’ name as the hero, which he deserved…But in the meantime, Jonas was, how shall I say, not very generous to his colleagues and he made sure that nobody else was ever mentioned (6).”
The following excerpt is from Polio: An American Story (6). “In September 1963, Salk returned to Pittsburgh to attend the unveiling of his portrait in the auditorium of the University’s medical complex, a stone’s throw from the hospital where he had done his historic polio research. Before the ceremony, Salk told Dean George Bernier that he wished to speak privately with his former assistant, Julius Youngner, now a distinguished professor at the school of medicine. The two men hadn’t talked or crossed paths since Salk’s move to California in 1961. Salk saw the meeting as a courtesy to the only remaining member of his laboratory staff; Youngner had a different agenda. Speaking softly, he recalled, he slowly released the ‘hurt’ he had bottled up for more than thirty years. ‘Do you still have the speech you gave in Ann Arbor in1955? Have you ever reread it?’ Youngner began. ‘We were in the audience, your closest colleagues and devoted associates, who worked hard and faithfully for the same goal that you desired…Do you remember who you mentioned and who you left out? Do you realize how devastated we were at that moment and ever afterward when you persisted in making your coworkers invisible? Do you know what I’m saying,’ I asked. He answered that he did…Jonas was clearly shaken by these memories and offered little response.’…The two men engaged in some uncomfortable small talk before Dean Bernier returned to escort them to the ceremony. Speaking later to a reporter, Youngner admitted, ‘I got a lot of things off my chest. I’m beyond the point where I pull my punches with him. I think it was the first time he ever heard it so graphically.’ Asked if he had any regrets about working for Salk, Youngner replied: ‘Absolutely not. You can’t imagine what a thrill that gave me. My only regret is that he disappointed me.”’
Jonas Salk is deservedly celebrated for developing the killed polio vaccine. That vaccine, together with Albert Sabin’s live attenuated vaccine, which followed soon afterwards, has nearly eradicated polio worldwide. Importantly, Sabin and other polio researchers believed that only a live vaccine could induce a level of immunity sufficient to protect against a challenge with live virulent virus. Nonetheless, Salk persevered in his conviction that a killed vaccine could protect against polio, and he was right.
Salk founded the prestigious Salk Institute in 1963. Yet he never himself made another notable contribution to science.
Youngner may be best known for his work on the Salk vaccine. Yet he had a distinguished career of his own at the University of Pittsburgh after Salk left. Youngner is especially noted for his contributions to interferon research. These include his finding that non-viral agents could trigger interferon induction in animals. And, in collaboration with colleague Samuel Salvin, he identified a second type of interferon, now known as gamma-interferon. Youngner also helped to explain the antiviral-effect of interferon, and he was the first researcher to demonstrate that some viruses express countermeasures against interferon.
Youngner also made important findings in the area of persistent virus infections. Importantly, he demonstrated that defective viral variants, including temperature-sensitive mutants, can play a role in the establishment and maintenance of viral persistence; doing so by impairing (modulating) the replication of the wild-type parental viruses. Based on that principle, Youngner sought to develop dominant-negative mutants of influenza virus as a novel means of anti-influenza therapy. In addition, Youngner and colleague Patricia Dowling developed a novel live attenuated vaccine against equine influenza virus, based on a cold-adapted influenza virus, which can replicate only at the temperatures found in the respiratory tract. That live vaccine was the first to prevent a serious respiratory disease of horses.
- Salk, J.E., Youngner, J.S, Ward, E.N. (1954). Use of Color Change of Phenol Red as the Indicator in Titrating Poliomyelitis Virus or Its Antibody in a Tissue–Culture System,” American Journal of Epidemiology. 60: 214–230.
- Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin: One of the Great Rivalries of Medical Science, Posed on the blog March 27, 2014.
- John Enders: “The Father of Modern Vaccines,” Posted on the blog August 4, 2016.
- Vaccine Research using Children, Posted on the blog, July 7, 2016.
- Williams, G., Paralysed with Fear: The Story of Polio, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
- Oshinsky, D.M., Polio: An American Story, Oxford University Press, 2005.