Burg Salk, 1946
After Sylvia's second rejection from Cornell, her mother journeyed from her home in Hunter, New York, to Ithaca to have a private conference with Dean William Arthur Hagan. Mrs. Burg, a petite and quiet - but determined - woman, advanced on the hallowed office of the dean of the College with a mission. To this day, Sylvia knows neither the substance nor the tenor of the conversation, but she was admitted to Cornell the following fall.
As with so many women of her era, Sylvia Burg met her husband at Cornell. In Sylvia's case, they met in anatomy class over the dead quarter of a horse. Following graduation, the Salks moved to Montpelier, Vermont, where Sylvia became the state's first female veterinarian. The Salks opened a joint practice with classmate George Brightenbach; Sylvia did the small-animal work while the other two looked after the large animals. The relationship ended one year later when Herman accepted a position in the virology department of Parke-Davis Labs.
The Salks' next move was to a farm in western Pennsylvania, where Herman reared laboratory mice. His salary of $100 per month was supplemented by raising boxers and running a practice out of their home. The table was either cleared for surgery or cleared of surgical instruments for dinner. Those were also the days when Herman's brother, Jonas Salk, was feverishly working at the nearby University of Pittsburgh to develop a killed vaccine against polio. The children of the two families grew up together during this period in the mid-1950s when the vaccine was being developed and tested. In 1954, however, Herman and Sylvia moved their children to California and opened a small-animal practice in the desert.
Always intrigued by other cultures, the Salks began their international involvement in the late 1960s by hosting African exchange students in their home. In 1975, Sylvia and her two daughters went to Tanzania to visit her oldest son, Steven. A recent graduate of the UC-Davis veterinary program, Steven was working with the Masai tribe as part of a USAID program. Once Sylvia returned and persuaded Herman to visit, the inoculation was complete. A whole new aspect of their lives opened, and they became fascinated with the problems of the developing world. They sold their practice and answered an advertisement in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association for Heifer Project International. During the next several years, they embarked on a series of tours of duty in Cameroon, Egypt, Thailand, China, and Laos. They later returned to the U.S. to work in the Southwest with the Navajo and Hopi nations. Their collective experiences were remarkable. They lived under conditions that were as satisfying as they were challenging. They taught vaccination strategies, production medicine, nutrition, and management. They made a difference and left places better than they had found them.
In 1990 Sylvia enrolled in a master's degree program in international public health at Loma Linda University. As the oldest student and the only veterinarian at the time, she was able to bring a broader perspective to the program, especially on the subject of zoonotic diseases. For example, she reminded faculty and students alike to check cattle for scabies while treating villagers for the same condition, and described techniques for raising ducks and pigs over the fish ponds. Her life experiences were shared for the benefit of all.
After returning from the Cameroon project in 1978, the Salks established a scholarship program for African students to come to college in North America. Limited to the health sciences, education, and agriculture, the program has so far benefited 32 African students. A young Masai woman currently enrolled in a master's degree program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania has become the first woman of her tribe ever to pursue an advanced degree.
Now living in Palm Springs, California, Dr. Sylvia Burg Salk remains an engaging and fascinating woman. Looking back over a life of discovery, clinical practice, motherhood, and philanthropy, she can be well satisfied with the difference she has made in the world.