Salk exhibit celebrates Public Health school’s 75th anniversary


“The legacy of Jonas Salk belonged in Pittsburgh,” said former School of Public Health Dean Donald Burke at the opening of the new Jonas Salk Legacy Exhibit in the lobby and library of the school.

The display brings back historical laboratory equipment — from an iron lung and centrifuge to beakers and Salk’s desk — as well as documents and photographs from the work of Salk and colleagues, who developed and tested the world’s first polio vaccine here in the 1950s. 

The exhibit, a gift from the Salk family (including Peter Salk, a school faculty member), represents a time when a public health triumph was “made possible by the whole community pulling together,” Burke noted. “There is an anti-vaccine sentiment in the United States” today, but 70 years ago the new preventative “dropped the rate of polio drastically.”

The exhibit includes everything from an array of lab counters, beakers, flasks, mortars and pestles to a wall of awards. The University Library System also has preserved and will make accessible Salk’s research papers, as well as consent forms and vaccination records showing the participation of thousands of Pittsburgh schoolchildren in one of the earlier vaccine trials.

At the opening, Maureen Lichtveld, current Public Health dean and Jonas Salk professor of population health, said the exhibit was “the cornerstone event of our 75th anniversary,” and noted that school researchers are right now working on “COVID predictive modeling … so we can focus where the outbreak will be next.”

Peter Salk, professor of infectious diseases and microbiology and president of the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation, introduced the new installation by observing that “we have a lot to do together as a human family” in the future to make the world safer.

Burke, distinguished University professor of health sciences and policy and epidemiology, said future additions to the exhibit may be the actual virus — happily, deactivated — still in freezers in California. The school just needs to figure out how to display such an artifact.

He recalled being six in 1952 when the polio epidemic spread. His friend down the street got polio, he recalled, and Burke wasn’t even allowed to walk past the house anymore. “As far as I know everybody was eager” to get the vaccine at the time, with only a few doubters. “Most parents were terrified of their children getting polio.

“The parents and the community stepped up at that time and solved the problem,” he remembered. And he hopes to involve the local community in the future of exhibit programming. “It’s something we should be proud of,” he said.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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  • Three people at new Salk exhibit
    The opening of the new Jonas Salk exhibit in the lobby of the School of Public Health featured comments from current Dean Maureen Lichtveld (center), former Dean Donald Burke (left) and Salk's son and current Public Health faculty member Peter Salk.
  • Salk famously said the polio vaccine didn't belong to any one person, but to everyone.
  • The centrifuge used by Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh to develop the polio vaccine is one of the items in the new exhibit.
  • The exhibit includes Salk's desk along with a variety of awards he won related to developing the polio vaccine.