The Real Reason Why Salk Refused to Patent the Polio Vaccine

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Editor’s Note:
Despite the progress in polio and other diseases made possible by vaccines, today we are witnessing a resurgence of vaccine-preventable illnesses as nervous parents skip their children’s shots. Watch the PBS documentary Vaccines—Calling the Shots to find learn more. 

BIO is also a leading voice on the patent-ability of biotech inventions and other IP matters. To get the most recent updates on IP in the biotech world, please sign up for BIO’s free bi-monthly IP Newsletter.

A guest writer in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal repeated the oft quoted Jonas Salk statement about his Polio vaccine: “There is no patent.  Could you patent the sun?”  Many use this statement as the moral impetus for refusing patents on medically important innovations (see Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story).  Unfortunately, Jonas Salk created a myth that day by leaving out several crucial details.

As pointed out by Robert Cook-Deegan at Duke University, “When Jonas Salk asked rhetorically “Would you patent the sun?” during his famous television interview with Edward R. Murrow, he did not mention that the lawyers from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis had looked into patenting the Salk Vaccine and concluded that it could not be patented because of prior art – that it would not be considered a patentable invention by standards of the day. Salk implied that the decision was a moral one, but Jane Smith, in her history of the Salk Vaccine, Patenting the Sun, notes that whether or not Salk himself believed what he said to Murrow, the idea of patenting the vaccine had been directly analyzed and the decision was made not to apply for a patent mainly because it would not result in one. We will never know whether the National Foundation on Infantile Paralysis or the University of Pittsburgh would have patented the vaccine if they could, but the simple moral interpretation often applied to this case is simply wrong.”

While the debate on whether patents are the best way to incentivize medical innovation and commercialization continues, that debate should proceed without reliance on this myth regarding the history of the Polio vaccine.

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24 Responses to The Real Reason Why Salk Refused to Patent the Polio Vaccine

  1. Joe B says:

    It’s certainly difficult to put yourself in Salk’s head.

  2. Nathan Ruby says:

    While that vaguely helps to support all of the utter B.S. we have gotten ourselves (humanity) into with TRIPS and bogus IPR, it is superfluous information. Salk went on record stating he believed in the cure, and he did his research at a time when we did not have the same preposterously greedy Research and Development / Patent Scheme we have today, where there needs to be a considerable amount of proof and possibly a full patent on the ‘gene’ ‘virus’ ‘bacteria’ ‘plant’ to even start the specialized research. I think it is embarrassing that many ‘scientists’ are working with TEAMS of lawyers and economists instead of doing great things for our species. Many scientists and inventors anymore, or curious and passionate…I feel many just want a job, and they have a degree.

    Sorry for the tangents. But to write critically about Salk with correllatory proof seems a bit naft…

    • lorra rudman says:


      • Carol Jean says:

        Thank you…..and thank all the scientists, inventors, and researchers who are motivated by the need to know, the thrill of discovery,and the desire to make a positive contribution to mankind as a whole. The world is indeed too much with us.

    • Jim says:

      Thank you!! for that refreshing draught of intelligence.

  3. sd2312 says:

    Regardless, the point can be made that in today’s world no drug company would have developed and distributed this without a patent. At that time US government funding and bright scientists made a very real and positive change in public health that has likely saved quality of life and taxpayer burden for invalid care, worldwide. Funding for academic research is being cut to the bone. Public funding should be directed towards initiatives that support science that make real progress in the fight against disease. But today it’s all big business, a race to patent everything under the sun, and these ‘charity’ organizations make me sick, there isn’t a single one that really wants to see a cure for anything come to light – their million dollar organizations would dry up. Donate to Science, these are the people who have dedicated to solving real problems and finding cures – because once they find it – there are other problems they can work on and would happily do so.

    • Dan says:

      Um… Not the US government, but the March of Dimes, a private charity.

      Your motivation is clearly not a wish to help anybody, but a hatred of profit as such. This has blinded you to facts and caused you to invent your own.

  4. sd2312 says:

    **who have dedicated their lives

  5. knathion says:

    is it all possible that the lesson learned from the quote is worth more than a speculative truth?

  6. I have been reading “Patenting The Sun.” It is about the Salk vaccine for polio. In an interview with Edward R. Murrow, Salk famously remarked that he hadn’t obtained a patent on the vaccine because you couldn’t “patent the sun.” This was widely interpreted to show Salk’s generosity. However, revisionists have taken the position that Salk was not being generous, he was admitting to the reality that prior art precluded the patent. These revisionists’ axe to grind is that it proves that patents are necessary for the exploitation of medical advances. Au contraire, say I. It proves that great advances can be made in the absence of patents.
    The March of Dimes, on the contribution of so many dimes by the public, proved that disease can be conquered in the absence of patents.
    Another example is the comment of Roslyn Yalow, coinventor of RIA, that “in my day we didn’t think to get patents, we just published.”

  7. Paul says:

    Yet, patenting HAS ALSO led to many discoveries… both ways can co-exist, charitably funded research and research done for financial gain.

    • mishu says:

      The federal government does research through NIH grants while private companies do research as well. Research for cures or vaccines are difficult because the solutions are difficult to find. There’s no C. Montgomery Burns type conspiracy going on. The reason why companies want make a profit and minimize risk they want a return on their investment and they don’t want to get sued.

  8. Patrick says:

    The comparison inherent in Salk’s quote between the polio vaccine and the life-giving qualities of sunlight should not be eclipsed in this argument. Our own intrinsic capacity for compassion, were it not so often obscured by our own self centered neuroses, would ensure that we care for the well being of those around us as naturally (and as freely) as sunlight falls on the earth. This is the point to be taken from all of this, regardless of the arguments for and against the effects of patent law, and regardless of what Mr Salk knew about it at the time of his conversation with Mr Murrow.

  9. James E. Link says:

    Notice that Dr. Salk compared the vaccine not to any old thing discovered in nature and thus impossible to patent, but to something that shines out as being of the greatest and most fundamental importance to the well being of all humanity: the sun. We do well to acknowledge the right of people to common ownership of those things that are basic to their common and individual well being, to life itself. The polo vaccine is one of these things!

  10. Robert A. Overman says:

    As a Boy Scout in the 1950s my Troop participated in a disaster drill in South Miami – a simulated collision between a school bus and a train. As one of the “victims” I was transported to Variety Children’s Hospital where I pronounced DOA, which gave me some time to look around. There were long halls filled with iron lungs in anticipation of being occupied by young polio patients. And then came Jonas Salk. The iron lungs went away and my parents and thousands of other parents revered the man who had saved countless kids and their families from the horrors of polio.

  11. tom brent says:

    It would be interesting to know what the “prior art” was….

  12. A Varghese says:

    The chronology and analysis in this Slate article seems to provide more info – esp. about, if the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis really wanted to patent the vaccine and if that was for financial or other practical reasons.

  13. Jon says:

    If you want to be generous and give a vaccine to the world with no patents, then nobody should be doing research to see if it is patentable. The fact that someone even looked at the possibility of patenting means that he hoped to patent it. Now, even if he wanted to cash in, is that so wrong ?? Maybe he wanted to make cash to fund his next research to fight cancer so we can’t blame him for thinking about getting a patent. One thing is sure, he was one smart dude.

  14. Roy D Mayo says:

    Dr Salk, personally took care of me in 1951,,,,San Joaquin county hospital…Stockton Calif…Thru all the pain, confinement. inability to
    walk…In two weeks, I was “up and at’em…I was for years old when all
    of this took place…I wept bitterly Mr. Salk died, it was not just a weeping for the fact he was gone,but also weeping for what he has done for so many…Iam now 67….and I will continue to thank God for this wonderful man and will continue to do so until I go to my long home

  15. la verna evans says:

    I am – a 70-year survivor of polio. In 1944, who would have thought that a thriving 2-year old toddler, living in a small town in the Appalacian Mountains would ever contract polio. WELL, it happened and after 70 years – corrective surgery, this mother of three and grandmother of six is still on the move. I still remember how elated I was when I realized that the Salk vaccine was a reality.and the problems that myself and so many others would cease and be no more. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DR. SALK. THANK YOU FOR SO MUCH…..

  16. Paul Martin says:

    One reason for checking “patentability” might be to see if someone else could patent your work and exploit it. I have thought for some time that we should create an international entity that “owns” anything like Salk’s gift and can license it so that a manufacturer has a reasonable expectation of recovering their costs but cannot charge an exorbitant price for doing so. Would a vaccine against Ebola be such a case?

  17. Mississauga Dad says:

    Please forgive the length of my comment. I am a Canadian polio survivor. Compared to many polio victims, I have been so very, very lucky. I had polio as a 9 month old child in 1954. I suffered paralytic polio & was given little chance to live & have spent weeks in hospital. When I did survive my parents were told I would never walk. I have one leg shorter than the other & my left side is weaker & less robust than my right. I proved the original doctors wrong. As a child I walked, I ran, I hiked in the woods near my home. As a child I was picked on and bullied by other children because I was ‘crippled’. I was embarrassed to wear short pants because other kids laughed at me because my left leg was shorter and much thinner than my right and I had to wear a build-up on my shoe. I remember my dad then (as he is still is) as a man of infinite patience who took a morning off work at least once every month to take me for as long as I was a child to see the doctor for a scheduled appointment. I remember that hospital waiting room, and the hallway, and the treatment rooms as though they were yesterday. Since I was a boy the taunting was probably even worse because boys are expected to be athletic. I had an absolutely wonderful polio doctor who looked after me during my entire childhood and adolescence and carried out the required surgeries and without him I would never have accomplished what I have. Although other doctors told me at that time that I would never be athletic, Dr. Murphy told me that I should never let other people’s expectations determine what I thought I could do. So I played basketball and football on the school’s intramural teams – I wasn’t the best player but I was far from the worst – but I was always the last person selected in pickup games. When I was 14 the leg length discrepancy had gotten to be bad enough that epiphyseal stapling was carried out on the affected leg. I remember being in the hospital for two weeks to have the staples put in and I remember my dad coming every single day during his lunch break and I can still remember nearly every single one of those visits. I carried the staples in my left knee for two years, and I still insisted on playing school sports and hiking – but the procedure worked and my legs after were essentially the same length, although I still tell people that I am two years shorter than I should be. It was another two week hospital visit after two years to have the staples removed and again dad was there everyday. When they were out Dr. Murphy smiled and told me to take it easy for a few weeks until I got back to normal. Less than two months later I walked 40 miles in a charity walk and was one of the first 10% of finishers. I recall Dr. Murphy just smiling again when I told him, and saying (with a grin) that I never had followed doctor’s orders. He then laughed and said “Well you know you’ll probably never be an Olympic Athlete”. He was right about that one prediction but like most polio survivors I refused to let polio win so I took up cycling and hiking and climbing in the mountains, which I still do, to a much lesser extent even today. Dr. Murphy passed away 3 years ago and even though I hadn’t seen him for over 35 years his passing was like a body blow. I didn’t even know until after he died that he had been a War hero, being shot down over Germany and spending time in a POW camp. From his determination I guess I learned that Polio survivors DO NOT give up. I now suffer from Post-Polio Syndrome. It is real. There are thousands of polio survivors like me who also suffer but until recently were not taken seriously. Even now it is hard to convince many people that PPS is an actual affliction. I feel sadness and dread about the recurrence of polio in some nations. But what I feel more is ANGER. Anger that children, little boys and mostly little girls are now being exposed to this scourge. What angers me even more is that the thousands of children, mostly girls who are being FORCED to suffer the ravages of polio NOW because of radical Islamists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, & Nigeria who refuse to allow the vaccination that will prevent the death or lifetime of suffering that hundreds of thousands of polio victims suffered. I have lived a good physical life that was essentially normal by all standards, and my suffering was minimal, yet I would gladly suffer again if I knew these children could be saved by my suffering. I am ANGRY that today’s children must fear what I had hoped was eradicated. I am ANGRY that children are suffering because of STUPIDITY. POLIO MUST BE DEFEATED.

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