Exemplary Ethical Conduct I’m Embarrassed I Didn’t Know About Dept.: Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin

Salk and Sabin

Salk and Sabin, true professionals. Did you know?

You learn the damnedest things in the damnedest places, which is a good reason to keep your ears open wherever you may be.

Last night I found myself listening to Michael Savage, easily the most offensive of all conservative talk show hosts, and he gives Rush and Mark Levine a run for their money in the ego category, too. I only listen to Savage by accident, and then only in bites of five minutes or less; it frightens me that millions of people might be influenced by such consistently hateful commentary.

But Savage (whose real name is Michael Alan Weiner) is no dummy, and not infrequently goes off on learned tangents about philosophy, history or religion in between declaring that the nation is under Nazi rule. Yesterday, just as I was reaching for the dial, he disclosed that one of his heroes growing up was Jonas Salk, not because he invented the first effective polio vaccine, but because he refused to patent it, and gave it to the world for the benefit of humanity. A bit later, Savage noted that Albert Sabin, Salk’s bitter rival who later invented the oral vaccine, also declined to profit from his invention.

Could all this be true, I wondered?  If it is true, why did I not know about it? Why doesn’t everybody know about it?

It is true. Asked why he didn’t patent his vaccine, Salk famously answered, “Can you patent the sun?” In 2012, Forbes estimated how much money Salk and Sabin would have made in they had sought to profit from their discoveries. (You can find the calculations here). The conclusion: 2.5 Billion for Salk and 5-6 billion for Sabin. They did not estimate how many more people would have died if the costs of both vaccines had been approximately 25% higher, which would have been the likely result of patents.

The two researchers embody what has been almost totally lost in medicine (…and law, and government, and the other classic “professions”) today, the dedication to societal good and humanity that is at the foundation of what it means to be a “professional.”  The idea of someone, for example, inventing an effective AIDS vaccine (Salk was reportedly working on one at the end of his life) today and donating it rather than patenting  it is unimaginable. Everyone cashes in. Indeed, our current culture thinks you are a fool if you don’t.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t know about the compassionate professionalism, generosity and altruism of Salk and Sabin. Maybe nobody thinks they were heroes. Maybe our greed and celebrity obsessed culture thinks they were suckers, sentimental idealists living in a dream world.

Maybe. But for the first time in my life, I agree with Michael Savage. They were heroes, and the values they not only advocated but lived by are as crucial now as ever.

Spark: The Savage Nation

Sources: Forbes, Quora

14 thoughts on “Exemplary Ethical Conduct I’m Embarrassed I Didn’t Know About Dept.: Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin

  1. I remember learning this in college, but it was in an Ethics in Science class — not a mainstream college course by any means. This tidbit does come up in debates now and then re profits in the pharma industry.

  2. What I heard was that while Salk is credited with the discovery, he worked for a children’s hospital funded by a foundation for infantile paralysis – not a govt grant but a charitable one – so I am not sure his team could have patented the vaccine if they’d wanted to. I don’t really know how patents work. Other folks were contributing to his discoveries at the time – and different groups were collaborating to find a cure for this world health crisis. There are arguments for and against patents. Humans are motivated by the reward of money, so why not have monetary incentives for people to create new things? If a gov’t was going to invent a vaccine for AIDS it would have happened log ago. So if an individual gets really rich from a patent and that money funds research that creates a vaccine for AIDS, then so be it. Fame and fortune are motivators.

    • I’ve heard this too, but it doesn’t seem to be the consensus account.

      That’s what makes it exemplary ethics. Nobody ever said it would be wrong to seek a patent. It is just overwhelmingly generous, altruistic and selfless not to.

      • Indeed. Perhaps a non-profit could be the place to provide the environment where scientists work under those ideals. I can be hopeful. I sat with a man at a New Years party who works for SIR, a non-profit engineering company. He was proud that his company has produced some modern wonders – robotics used in surgery, SIri of iPhone fame to name a couple. Once the technology is developed and tested they sell it to a company that does profit from refining and marketing it. Maybe that is what it will take to find a cure for AIDS – incredibly bright minds working for a company that wants nothing other than to advance science – and they make just enough money in order to keep the research happening.

      • That’s what makes it exemplary ethics. Nobody ever said it would be wrong to seek a patent. It is just overwhelmingly generous, altruistic and selfless not to.
        I needed to read that today!

  3. Actually, there’s several other ethical dimensions of the Salk story which is worthy of note.

    To start out with, take a look at the identities the first people the Salk vaccine was tested on, as well as how they encouraged people to participate in its trial. To wit, Salk’s first test subject was Salk himself. He followed by injecting his family.

    This, mind, was before he knew that it worked. That was how he tested the vaccine’s _safety_.

    Following this, Salk and company moved to try and find out whether it worked. To put it mildly, the entire affair was a political mess (e.g. see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1114166/ ), but Salk moved forward.

    Then, Salk _waited until the trial results were in_ before announcing that he had a working vaccine (see http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/salk-announces-polio-vaccine ) — something that is unfortunately remarkable in the context of today’s medical establishment.

    And then there’s the matter of the Cutter Incident, which… gyah. Not going there in this sort of format. If you are curious, however, it’s a summary of the matter at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cutter_Laboratories#The_Cutter_incident , although a more full account of the matter and its fallout can (and has) easily take a book or two (e.g. see http://www.amazon.com/The-Cutter-Incident-Americas-Vaccine/dp/0300126050/ ).

  4. Also, according to a scholar at Duke University, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis did look into patenting the polio vaccine but were told by their lawyers that the vaccine was unpatentable because of prior art. See http://archive.mises.org/5216/patent-and-penicillin/. What the Foundation would have done had they been able to patent the vaccine is, of course, unknown. Hopefully they would not have done anything differently (or sought a patent to prevent others from doing so and licenced the vaccine for free).

  5. I think the ethical thing to do in today’s environment would be to patent it, but not profit from the patent- that is to say, keep the IP rights so that less scrupulous entities cannot. Patent doesn’t require that you actually INVENT something, just that you beat everyone else to the punch. Plenty of ‘patent trolls’ out there, sadly, who would be happy to drive up the costs of an AIDS vaccine.

  6. Well both Salk hated Sabin and in 72 before a congressional committee testified that ‘every polio epidemic in the US since 61 had been caused by the Sabin vaccine. Of course not to be outdone, Sabin called Salk’s vaccine ‘dangerous’. It must be noted that Mercks senior scientist as well as Dr Bernice Eddy but warned that Salk and Sabins vaccines were both corrupted with cancer causing simian virus (SV40). Salks vaccine was demonstrated by Cutter Labs chief Dr Alton Oschner on his grandson and grandaughter. The boy was dead in 48 hours and the girl developed crippling polio. Neither Salk nor Sabin should have ever been lionized. I believe that Salk did not patent his vac because he was afraid of spending his life on the run.

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