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Heroes of Progress, Pt. 5: Jonas Salk

Blog Post | Vaccination

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 5: Jonas Salk

Introducing the pioneer of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk.

Today is the fifth installment of a new series of articles by HumanProgress.org titled, The Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column provides a short introduction to unsung heroes who have made an extraordinary contribution to the wellbeing of humanity. You can find the 4th part of this series here.

Our fifth Hero of Progress is Jonas Salk, the man who pioneered the world’s first effective polio vaccine.

Polio is a highly infectious viral disease that is most often transmitted by drinking water that has been contaminated with the feces of someone carrying the virus. The virus spreads easily in regions with poor sanitation. The symptoms include: fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness and pain in the limbs. Most infected patients recover. In one out of two-hundred cases, the virus attacks the nervous system, leading to irreversible paralysis. Of those paralyzed, between 5 and 10 percent die when their breathing muscles become immobilized.

Polio has a relatively long incubation period – it can spread for many months without being detected – making it extremely difficult to monitor. According to Max Roser from Oxford University, “Up to the 19th century, populations experienced only relatively small outbreaks [of polio]. This changed around the beginning of the 20th century. Major epidemics occurred in Norway and Sweden around 1905 and later also in the United States.”

The first major outbreak of polio happened in the United States in 1916, when the disease infected 27,000 people and killed more than 7,000 people. The second major outbreak of polio in 20th century America happened in the 1950s. It is here Jonas Salk enters our story.

Jonas Edward Salk was born on October 28, 1914, in New York. Salk became passionate about biochemistry and bacteriology during his time at the New York University School of Medicine. After he graduated in 1939, he started working at the prestigious Mount Sinai Hospital. Salk’s focus shifted to researching polio vaccinations in 1948, when he was head-hunted to work at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis – an organization that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself a polio sufferer, helped to set up.

After a large outbreak of polio across the United States in 1952, donations began pouring in to the foundation and in the spring of 1953, Salk put forward a promising anti-polio vaccine. The foundation quickly began trials on 1.83 million children across the United States. These children became known as the “polio pioneers.” Salk’s foundation received donations from two-thirds of the American population and a poll even suggested that more Americans knew about these field trails than knew the then-president’s full name (Dwight David Eisenhower).

On April 12, 1955, Salk’s supervisor, Thomas Francis, announced that Salk’s vaccine was safe and effective in preventing polio. Just two hours later, the U.S. Public Health Service issued a production license for the vaccine and a national immunization program began.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Albert Sabin, a Polish American medical researcher working at the National Institutes of Health, introduced a polio vaccine that could be administered orally, thereby making vaccination efforts less expensive as trained health workers weren’t needed to administer injections. From a record 58,000 cases in 1952, the United States was declared polio free in 1979.

In 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was founded to administer the vaccine worldwide. When the GPEI began its efforts, polio paralyzed 10 children for life every 15 minutes, across 125 countries. Since 1988, more than 2.5 billion children have been immunized and incidents of polio infections have fallen by more than 99.99 percent. That is, they fell from 350,000 annual cases, to just 22 new cases across 3 countries in 2017. Next year, Africa is due to be declared free of polio – that is, if no new cases are found in Nigeria, which is the last country in the region to report new polio infections.

Following his discovery of the vaccine, Salk received dozens of awards, a presidential citation, four honorary degrees, half a dozen foreign decorations, and letters from thousands of thankful fellow citizens. In 1963, Salk established the Jonas Salk Institute for Biological Studies – a world-class research facility that focuses on molecular biology and genetics, neurosciences, and plant biology. Salk devoted his later years to researching a vaccine for HIV/AIDS. He died on June 23rd, 1995.

Salk’s work has saved hundreds of millions of people from crippling paralysis, and millions from death. Thanks to his vaccine, a disease that has plagued humanity since pharaonic Egypt is almost completely eradicated, and within a few years, the disease will (hopefully) be consigned to history. It is for this reason Jonas Salk deserves to be our fifth Hero of Progress.

Blog Post | Science & Education

Introducing Our Upcoming Book, Heroes of Progress

Over the past two centuries, humanity has become massively more prosperous, better educated, healthier, and more peaceful.

The underlying cause of this progress is innovation. Human innovation―whether it be new ideas, inventions, or systems―is the primary way people create wealth and escape poverty.

Our upcoming book, Heroes of Progress: 65 People Who Changed the World, explores the lives of the most important innovators who have ever lived, from agronomists who saved billions from starvation and intellectuals who changed public policy for the better, to businesspeople whose innovations helped millions rise from poverty.

If it weren’t for the heroes profiled in this book, we’d all be far poorer, sicker, hungrier, and less free―if we were fortunate enough to be alive at all.

Considering their impact on humanity, perhaps it’s time to learn their story?

Heroes of Progress book advertised on Amazon for pre-order

Heroes of Progress Book Forum

On March 21st, the author of Heroes of Progress, Alexander Hammond, will present the book live at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. He will be joined by Marian Tupy, the editor of Human Progress, and Clay Routledge, the Archbridge Institute’s Vice President of Research, who will speak on the individual’s role in advancing human progress and the need for a cultural progress movement.

Learn more about the event here.

Praise for Heroes of Progress

Making an inspiring case for progress at this time of skepticism and historical ingratitude is no easy feat. Yet, by relentlessly outlining the extraordinary ability of individuals to shape our world for the better, Alexander Hammond does just that.

Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Innovation is a team sport achieved by people working together, using precious freedoms to change the world, so it’s sometimes invidious to single out one person for credit. But once an idea is ripe for plucking, the right person at the right time can seize it and save a million lives or open a million possibilities. Each of these 65 people did that, and their stories are both thrilling and beautiful.

Matt Ridley, author of How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom

The figures in this book are the overlooked and often unknown figures who have transformed the lives of ordinary people, for the better… This book is a correction to widespread pessimism and is both informative and inspirational.

Dr. Stephen Davies, author of The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity

Superman and the Avengers are all very well, of course, but the real superheroes are thinkers, scientists, and innovators of flesh and blood who saved us from a life that used to be poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Alexander Hammond tells their inspiring stories in this magnificent book that will leave you grateful to be living in the world these men and women created.

— Johan Norberg, author of Open: The Story of Human Progress

The 65 innovators honored here made us happier, healthier, and longer-lived. Indeed, it is thanks to some of them that we are here at all. Their story is the story of how the human race acquired powers once attributed to gods and sorcerers―the story of how we overcame hunger, disease, ignorance, and squalor. I defy anyone to read this book and not feel better afterwards.

Lord Daniel Hannan, president of the Institute for Free Trade

The 65 fascinating stories in Heroes of Progress are
testaments to the ingenuity of humankind in delivering a richer,
healthier, and hopefully freer world. Alexander C. R. Hammond
provides an inspirational reminder that when individuals are
free to speak, think, innovate, and engage in open markets, the
heroic potential of humanity knows no bounds.

Lord Syed Kamall, Professor of politics and international relations, St. Mary’s University

In Heroes of Progress, Alexander Hammond reminds us that human minds are the fundamental driver of every discovery, invention, and innovation that has improved our lives. By telling the stories of pioneering men and women who have advanced civilization, this book not only honors past heroes of progress, but also provides inspiration for the next generation to use their uniquely human imaginative and enterprising capacities to build a better future.

— Clay Routledge, Vice President of Research and Director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute

BBC | Health Systems

How Sewers Are Helping Us to Monitor Disease Outbreaks

“Traditionally, wastewater surveillance has involved the unpleasant and dangerous job of manually collecting samples. But in Queensland, each sewer is now equipped with an autosampler which gathers samples hourly over a 24-hour period. These are then blended together to produce a mixture which can be analysed in special facilities using PCR tests – a molecular technique that can be used to identify fragments of genetic material. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now runs a national wastewater surveillance system to regularly test for a variety of pathogens, including monkeypox, using technology provided by Alphabet-owned Verily.”

From BBC.

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.



Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce


Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats




Other comebacks



Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation


Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing


Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources



Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development


Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment



Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s


Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases



Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations



    Artificial intelligence



    Construction and manufacturing


    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles


    Other innovations


    AI in science


    Chemistry and materials