Letters reveal how Pitt recruited Dr. Jonas Salk

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A young man in a hurry placed this ad in The Pittsburgh Press in the summer of 1947:

“MEDICAL SCHOOL PROFESSOR desires home before Oct. 1 for self, wife, and two children. Town or country, house or apartment, furnished or unfurnished.”

Dr. Jonas Salk, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, was joining the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh and needed a place to live. After arriving here, Salk began the research that led to a successful polio vaccine, announced with great fanfare in 1955.

In March, 20 boxes of Max Lauffer’s papers were donated to the University of Pittsburgh by his widow, Erika. The correspondence, exhibited at Hillman Library’s Special Collections department, is among a wide array of historic documents that 60 members of The Manuscript Society will see this week when they hold their national meeting here. 

Mr. Lauffer, a biochemist and virus researcher, began recruiting Salk earlier in 1947 and sought candid assessments of the young scientist from colleagues. The letters evoke a different, more relaxed pace of life that contrasts with the high-pressure research environment of today. You can practically smell Lauffer’s pipe smoke on their pages.

“He showed a high aptitude for experimental work,” wrote R. Keith Cannan, who oversaw Salk’s lab work after he completed a year of study at Columbia Medical School.  “Casual encounters since that time have left me with the impression that he has continued to be very fond of himself.”

Once Lauffer felt confident that Dr. Salk would be joining the Pitt faculty at an annual salary of $7,500 per year, he broke the news to Salk’s boss, Dr. Thomas Francis Jr.,at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. In trying to soften the blow, he wrote these prophetic words:

”It would not be proper to close this letter without a word of recognition of the debt any future employer of Salk, whether it be we or someone else, will owe to you. You provided him the opportunity and inspiration to grow into a mature and competent investigator. In so doing, you rendered science a great service.“

Dr. Salk wrote to Lauffer of his relief at finding a house to rent and said he planned to move to Pittsburgh in September. He closed on a friendly note, saying, ”I hope your vacation was all that you wanted of it, and I look forward with great pleasure to the coming year.“

Mrs. Lauffer, who lives in Londonderry, 20 minutes outside of Harrisburg, said she began looking through the letters between Salk and her late husband last October, She set a goal of donating them by March 21, 2014, the day that would have been the 50th anniversary of their wedding at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon.  

Mr. Lauffer, an ardent Presbyterian, often gave talks to scientific organizations and church groups. When he spoke to his local Rotary Club in Middletown, Pa., he recounted how his eldest son, Edward, was among the 400,000 U.S. school children who received the test polio vaccine in 1954.

”He always kiddingly said, ’I let my son be a guinea pig for Salk,’“ Mrs. Lauffer recalled.

The Manuscript Society’s four-day meeting starts today and is being held here for the first time. Founded in Chicago in 1948, the organization’s 950 members include archivists, librarians, manuscript collectors, rare book and manuscript dealers plus museum curators. In addition to the Salk letters, they will study a 3,000-page manuscript that author Chuck Kinder worked on for more than 30 years while teaching writing at the University of Pittsburgh.

Titled ”Honeymooners,’’ it was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux after the author pared the book down to 585 pages. A roman a clef of Kinder’s outlaw writer days in San Francisco, the manuscript has a role in the movie, “The Wonder Boys,” which was inspired by Michael Chabon’s successful novel.  

Chabon, who is Kinder’s most successful student, knew his teacher had sweated and stewed over the manuscript. During the movie, there’s a scene in which the manuscript is blown around by the wind.




Marylynne Pitz: 412-263-1648 or mpitz@post-gazette.com.

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