In the spring of 1953, when Peter Salk was nine years old, he knew that polio was something to fear. Of course, he was mostly picking up on his parents’ concern, as by then the virus had killed upwards of 3,145 people, a majority of them children, and left 21,269 others with mild to disabling paralysis. But when his dad, virologist Jonas Salk, came home with the latest version of a vaccine he was working on, along with syringes and needles, Peter didn’t think it was weird. He remembers how he and his siblings watched as their father “sterilized the equipment on the stove, and lined us up and gave us shots of the experimental vaccine.” At the time, he was just upset about getting jabbed.
“I hated injections, as did my two younger brothers,” Peter says. Prior to that, he had even gone as far as hiding from shots, forcing his parents to come find him. “It was one of my least favorite experiences in life. So that’s what I was concerned about.”
Peter wasn’t aware of the significance of his father administering the polio vaccine to himself and his family about a year before large-scale clinical trials would test the vaccine on young children from the general populace. “I don’t have any memory of metabolizing that experience as something momentous,” Peter recalls. And historically speaking, it’s not that out of the ordinary for scientists to bring their work home with them in such an extreme way. The Salk family vaccination night is part of a unique tradition that spans centuries — scientists using their loved ones to demonstrate the highest level of confidence that something they’ve developed is totally safe.
Obviously, many of the early familial experiments we know about today occurred at a time when there weren’t the same protections in place for children as there are today. Though present-day regulations for scientific experiments involving kids dictate that children can only be exposed to minimal risks with the consent of their parents, it took the Department of Health and Human services until 1983 to put those standards in place, leaving parent-scientists with a lot of time to experiment on their progeny.
Salk had good company in this regard. German professor Johann Autenrieth, for instance, set out to test the premise that sawdust could help with food shortages in 1817. As such, he used sawdust as a type of flour to make various foods, including gruels, soup, dumplings, pancakes and bread — and fed them to himself and his kids. Other than the realization that sawdust “constrained the throat” and led to “oppression” of the stomach, it was considered a successful experiment by 19th century standards because no one died.
Likewise, in 1912, British electrical engineer Thomas Thorne Baker had a theory that high-frequency electromagnetic waves could stimulate the growth of biological organisms. After testing his theory on peaches and chickens, Baker put his five-year-old daughter in an electrified cage. She was fine and reportedly said, “I felt lovely all the time” about being caged. Unfortunately, it didn’t appear to make her any bigger.
As ridiculous as these experiments seem in hindsight, they underscore a principle that’s still present today, explains post-doctoral scientist Joseph Richardson. In many ways, a researcher’s willingness to experiment on their families is an extension of their willingness to experiment on themselves — which Jonas Salk did, in addition to many other scientists throughout history. “A big concept I keep central to my research aims — and even when taking medical advice — is, ‘Would I use it on my own kids?’” says Richardson, who is in his third year at the University of Tokyo. “When an educated professional scientist or physician is using a treatment or similar on their own kids, it gives me confidence that this person believes in the science.”
Richardson’s research involves developing antimicrobial coatings that can be sprayed onto surfaces for extra protection against viruses like COVID. “When I got my conclusive positive results in the lab that this coating stopped lipid-enveloped viruses, I sprayed it on my own clothes and masks, as well as my wife and son’s,” Richardson says.
However, he makes an important distinction between testing and using the product, because he cannot study his family and maintain objectivity. “It’s almost impossible to test something on your own kid now if you want it to be peer-reviewed, but you can test it on yourself no problem,” Richardson notes. The main difference between “testing” and “using” the spray is that he’s not intentionally exposing his three-year-old to COVID to see if it works. “I just used it, as I was confident in the science and wanted him to have that protection.”
The same was true for Peter Salk. His dad wasn’t trying to expose him to polio, but he had enough evidence to be sure his vaccine worked and was safe — both from animal trials and studies on children who already had polio — so he wanted to give his kids the added protection. “It wasn’t a Frankenstein experiment where you grab the nearest child from the swings,” jokes Peter, who followed in his father’s footsteps and is now an infectious disease doctor researching vaccine production strategies and immunotherapy at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the lab his dad started.
He’s primarily focused on cancer and autoimmune diseases, so he’s never been in the position to use his research on his family. But he admits to carrying on the tradition of experimenting on himself in college when he was having stomach problems. At the time, he suspected he had an egg allergy and devised a series of elaborate skin-patch tests to determine that he was having an immediate reaction to the egg white and a delayed reaction to the yoke about 18 to 24 hours later. “I got really carried away with the process of self-experimentation,” Peter tells me.
His doctor was “rather shocked,” and told him to stop experimenting with eggs. It would be easy to chalk it up to the old adage, like father, like son. But in truth, it was much more a matter of the scientific apple not falling far from the tree.