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