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UC San Diego to salvage 'lost' audio recordings of polio vaccine pioneer Salk

| Thursday, May 10, 2018, 10:30 p.m.
A undated file photo of Jonas Salk. UC San Diego has asked a specialty company to digitize more than 170 hours of Salk recordings that were made on an audograph, a clunky device that became obsolete long ago. (Globe Photos/Zuma Press/TNS)
A undated file photo of Jonas Salk. UC San Diego has asked a specialty company to digitize more than 170 hours of Salk recordings that were made on an audograph, a clunky device that became obsolete long ago. (Globe Photos/Zuma Press/TNS)

SAN DIEGO — The idea-a-minute Jonas Salk didn't always have time to capture his thoughts on the yellow legal pads he always kept within arm's reach.

So he spent hour after hour talking into an audio recorder when he was developing the world's first effective polio vaccine and, after leaving a post as a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, creating the now famous research institute in La Jolla, Calif., that bears his name.

Most of those recordings haven't been heard in at least 50 years. But that will soon change. UC San Diego has asked a specialty company to digitize more than 170 hours of recordings that were made on an audograph, a clunky device that became obsolete long ago.

The recordings are part of the nearly 1,000 boxes of papers, media and photographs that the university maintains on Salk's life and work.

“It is one of the most significant collections we hold and now we can use a newer technology to make the content available for the first time in at least 50 years,” said Lynda Claassen, director of the Mandeville Special Collections at UC San Diego's Geisel Library.

“The hope is that it will be used by scholars to create new history, and maybe new science.”

Some of the recordings also will be made accessible to the general public.

Delicate medium

Salk began dictating the recordings in 1949, three years after the Gray Manufacturing Co. introduced a sound system called the audograph.

“It recorded sound by pressing grooves into soft vinyl discs,” the Museum of Obsolete Media says on its website. (The recordings) were thin plastic discs, recorded from the inside to the outside, the opposite of conventional phonograph discs.”

The discs are “as light as a sheet of tinfoil,” Stefan Elnabli, media curation librarian at UC San Diego. “And they were made at a time when preservation wasn't of any concern to manufacturers.”

The recordings that Salk made from 1949 to 1967 haven't been heard at UC San Diego in more than a half-century. The university has a machine to play them on. But Claassen says that using it could destroy the discs. So they've simply been kept in environmentally controlled storage.

Treasure trove

Salk had a great deal of trouble sleeping, largely because his mind was so filled with science problems. He'd frequently wake up several times a night and write his thoughts on legal pads — musings that became known as his “night notes.”

At about daylight, he would often used the audograph.

“The best time for me to discover what is going on in my life and in my mind is when I wake up,” Salk says in one of the papers held at UC San Diego.

The digitization of the recordings will begin over the summer and the university will begin getting them back in September.

“There could be some gems on those recordings. My father used the machine it to dictate his thoughts about things like journal articles and polio and things he was learning,” said Peter Salk of La Jolla, one of Salk's sons.

“It will be a very intimate thing to hear.”

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