An Unsung Hero

Who is the most important person in the 19th or 20th century and why?

I remember the smile on his face. My father had been stressed for eight years, and I didn’t think I’d ever see that smile again. It was an exuberant smile-one that showed a man who was at peace. Even with my father’s reassuring smile, I was terribly tense-I hated needles. But if I wanted to be protected, I’d have to withstand those few seconds of pain. My dad had already tested the vaccine on himself, but now it was time to try it on his own family. Ever since he had begun studying the poliomyelitis virus, he had been unable to sleep. That virus had become the bane of every family-people feared sending their children to school because they might contract the disease. Sometimes polio was lethal, but because it attacked the central nervous system, even those who recovered were often paralyzed. It was a grim choice – death or paralysis – but my father said he could stop it. I remember him looking at us one evening during dinner and asking, “What would you say if I told you that I think I know how to stop polio?” We all looked back at him blankly. Finally, mother replied, “Mr. Jonas Salk! Never say things like that unless you mean it. Do you mean it?” He nodded. We knew he was serious, and my mother whispered something about him becoming a hero. But really, my father isn’t one to care about being called a hero. He simply cares about people, and wants to help them whether he receives recognition or not. The needle hurt as it dug into my skin, but within moments it was all over. It seemed unreal that such a brief surge of pain would prevent me from profound suffering, and perhaps death. I never once doubted my father. He had gone against the traditional way of thinking: that a body can only become immune to a virus once a mild form of the live virus infects it. The most important discoveries come from going against the traditional way of thinking, and that is exactly what my dad did. He killed the virus, but kept it intact enough so that the body would be able to recognize it and build an immunity against it. He became a hero on April 12, 1955, the day that the polio vaccine was declared safe and effective. Soon everyone at school was getting vaccinated. Whether he wanted it or not, he was a savior. Polio had met its match. All my father’s research paid off, and he became an icon in the field of science. I hope that one day I will be like him: he not only saved hundreds of thousands of lives, but did so with a caring heart. It is 1992. Last year, there was only one case of polio reported in the entire United States. Families all over the country love my father for having come to their aid and for saving their beloved children from the nefarious disease. My father could have made a fortune from patenting the vaccine, but as he famously stated, “Who owns my polio vaccine? The people! Could you patent the sun?”

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