The scientist who helped develop the polio vaccine
Julius Youngner 1920–2017
Julius Youngner was a crucial member of the University of Pittsburgh team that developed the Salk polio vaccine. Youngner worked out how to grow large amounts of the poliovirus for experiments, discovered a safe way to deactivate the virus so it could be injected as a vaccine, and devised a blood test to measure the vaccine’s effectiveness. His work helped save millions of lives, and paved the way for the near- total eradication of the deadly disease. But Jonas Salk, the scientist leading the research, failed to individually credit his six assistants when he announced the breakthrough— a decision that left Youngner embittered and largely forgotten by the history books. “Jonas was, how shall I say, not very generous to his colleagues,” he said.
Born and raised in New York City, Youngner “nearly died” from pneumonia when he was 7, said The New York Times. Doctors were forced to operate on Youngner without anesthesia when he developed a secondary infection in a rib. “To this day,” he recalled in the early 1990s, “I can remember the feeling of the saw on that rib.” After earning his doctorate in microbiology, Youngner was drafted into the Army and joined the Manhattan Project. He discovered he’d been working on the atomic bomb “only when it was dropped on Japan.”
Youngner had a “brief stint” at the National Cancer Institute before joining Salk’s team in 1949, said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. After completing his work on the polio vaccine, he stayed at the university and enjoyed a “distinguished career as a research scientist.” When asked whether he regretted working for Salk, Youngner responded unequivocally. “Absolutely not,” he said. “My only regret is that he disappointed me.” ■