Philosophy in a time of tribulation – Part 4

‘Ancestry’ and Immunity

Philosophy in a time of tribulation – Part 4

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The confusion during the present viral crisis strongly reminds me of the American immunologist and medical researcher, Jonas Salk (1914-1995).  ‘Salk’, I hear you ask?  Yes, Jonas Salk who, in 1955, developed the life saving polio vaccine. Polio, or infantile paralysis, an illness that caused symptoms of paralysis and deformity, not infrequently resulting in death, was in those days a fearful horror that afflicted humanity with up to half a million victims per year.

Dr. Salk was focused on developing an effective polio vaccine for many years, when he was personally confronted with a terrifying surge of polio victims in his hospital in Pittsburgh. One of his co-workers wrote that it was almost impossible for Dr. Salk to leave the hospital at night without passing a waiting room full of crying, polio afflicted children desperate for help. Parents would approach him in tears, imploring him,

please save our children. 

One had to be extremely ‘cold’ to remain unaffected. From his early childhood onwards, Salk had always been motivated and driven to save people’s lives. He prayed every day that he might be able to do some good for humanity, what earned him the affectionate nic-name of ‘little Jesus’ from his brothers.

His character was indistinguishable from the moral ma’asim tovim, the good deeds that within Judaism are the determining factors of one’s identity. For Salk and many of his colleagues, the problem of evil was not just a theological riddle, but an imperative impulse to diminish, and ultimately prevent, human suffering.

After many years of hard work and dedication, Dr. Salk finally presented his trial vaccine, only to be met by scorn and ridicule from many in the scientific community, rejecting his success on all sorts of flimsy grounds.

He will administer the vaccine at his own risk,

was a regular comment. However, Dr. Salk was undeterred, and possessing an unwavering courage, he pressed on.

I can assure you that I slept little in the weeks following the inoculations of the first group of children,

he confessed in reflecting on that event. But his faith proved well founded, when time demonstrated the efficacy of the vaccine, and millions of children were saved from the consequences of a terrible illness.

Dr. Salk was eventually lauded as a miracle worker, not only for his discovery, but also for his empathy and ability to help people through the greatest trials;

I had my dreams and I had my nightmares; and I have conquered my nightmares through my dreams.


Jonas Salk

Salk never pursued a patent for his discovery, but instead gave it freely to the world.  He did not wish for fame or glory, but rather wanted only to serve both present and future generations. This was in keeping with his personal lifes’ philosophy and desire to only be a ‘good ancestor’, a term he coined himself.   He is quoted as saying:

 If we wish to be good ancestors, we must demonstrate to future generations, just how we should confront times of great challenge and adversity, and how to be stronger because of it.  We must also preserve our faith in humanity, passing on to future generations the treasures we have unearthed, just as we were given the treasures from past generations.

Looking back at his life and career, we can see that Salk gradually distanced himself from the more orthodox medical and pharmaceutical approaches that he had initially used as a doctor. It had become his firm belief that only a holistic approach to illness, which included the integrated disciplines of medicine, biology, and philosophy, could provide an efficacy to address the ailments suffered by humanity.  According to him, such an approach frees unbridled energy for human growth.

Jonas Salk:

 Only ancestors (practitioners) that are inspired by the divine spark can do this healing work.That is a spark that ignites a great flame of understanding, and frees a power to change life in a direction that every human has long hoped for.

Both our current chaotic world and tomorrows’ future, are in dire need of ‘ancestors’ like Jonas Salk; people who want to openly live under the inspiration of that divine spark. We need people who, with respect to our children and grandchildren – our keepers of the future – are able to contribute to building a global solidarity built on a broad, mutually shared understanding.

People, who in this way, achieve much more than any solitary vaccine!


(To be continued in part 5)


[1] Algis Valiunas, Jonas Salk, the People’s scientist, How the man who vanquished polio won the public’s love but never the respect of his peers, The New Antlantis Summer/Fall 2018

[2] Roman Krznaric, The Good Ancestor (Penguin Random House 2020)


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Date: March 16, 2021
Author: Dick van Niekerk (Netherlands)
Photo: Anna-Shvets / pexels CCO

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