The Real Reason Why Salk Refused to Patent the Polio Vaccine

Patently BIOtech

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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16 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.

  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.

  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….

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