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To Do Better Work, Change Your Environment

On the first day of his new job at Pittsburgh Municipal Hospital, Jonas Salk was introduced to his office: a basement laboratory, 40 by 40 feet, next to a morgue.

According to reports, the researcher would put in 16-hour days — even on weekends — to work on a polio vaccine. But years after he started, he found himself at a dead end. In his exhaustion, Salk retreated to the monastery at the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi in Italy, a magnificent structure permeated by natural light. That’s where the breakthrough happened. Salk would go on to develop the first successful vaccine against the crippling disease, and become one of the most venerated medical scientists of the century. For the rest of his life, he would insist that something about being in the monastery helped clear his obstructed mind.