As a child growing up in New York City, Youngner was ill a lot, which led to a lifelong interest in infectious disease. While studying biology at the University of Michigan, Youngner was drafted into the U.S. Army for World War II; after the war, he joined the U.S. Public Health Service, and was recruited to join a team: to develop a vaccine for polio, which was terrorizing the world. In 1952, 58,000 cases of polio were reported, with 3,145 dead and 21,269 left with some degree of paralysis. Most victims were children. The team, led by Dr. Jonas Salk of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, was charged with figuring out a way to stop it. Youngner’s contribution: figuring out how to make the vaccine in large quantities quickly, since millions were desperate for their children to be immunized. He also developed the “rapid color test” to find the presence of the polio antibodies, which proved the vaccine was working. “Dr. Youngner made monumental contributions to the field of virology,” says Vincent Racaniello of Columbia University. “He also made important contributions to our understanding of the antiviral roles of interferon, cell culture and other vaccines.”
Youngner remained bitter that Salk took all the credit for developing the vaccine, hardly acknowledging the large team behind him. The final straw was when Salk’s wife called Youngner’s wife to say, “You know, we’re really disappointed in your husband, because he hasn’t called Jonas and congratulated him.” Salk died in 1995, and since then, Salk’s son, Peter, has worked to make amends. “The really important thing to recognize is that the development of the polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh was a team effort,” the younger Dr. Salk said. “Everyone who took part in that had a role to play, and Dr. Youngner had a significant and primary role in what was undertaken.” Youngner went on to a long career in improving the safety of vaccines, and rose to American Distinguished Service Professor in the School of Medicine and Department of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics at University of Pittsburgh. The last surviving member of Salk’s polio vaccine team, Dr. Youngner died on April 27, at 96.