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.