Few scientific achievements have had as swift and dramatic effect — and been surrounded by as much myth — as the development of the polio vaccine by Jonas Salk, who would have turned 100 on Tuesday.
Salk, who died in 1995, is remembered Tuesday around the medical world; there’s even a Google doodle perched atop its search page. But the more telling illustration is the accompanying graph, which shows the sharp and virtually permanent drop in polio incidence in the U.S. after mass vaccination began. The Salk vaccine was declared safe and effective in 1955. An oral vaccine developed by Albert Sabin was first tested in 1957 and went into widespread use in 1963.
Since then, polio has become little more than a historical footnote in the U.S.; there have been two recorded cases in this century, one of which was acquired overseas.
For a fictionalized depiction of the harm and panic caused by an outbreak in the 1940s and 1950s, read Philip Roth’s harrowing “Nemesis” (2010), one of his finest novels; that will give you a vision of the world that might return if the crackpot anti-vaccine movement gets its way. It’s proper to note that polio remains endemic in parts of equatorial Africa and Pakistan, where vaccine workers have come under physical attack. (See accompanying map.)
As for the myth, that involves the question of why Salk failed to patent his vaccine. The question is especially lively in our commercial age, though the debate over patenting scientific discoveries had emerged in academia soon after the turn of the last century.
The notion handed down to us is that Salk decided not to patent the vaccine as a noble act of self-abnegation. He unwittingly launched this misconception himself, during a live televised interview with Edward R. Murrow on April 12, 1955. Murrow asked, guilelessly, “Who owns the patent on this vaccine?” Salk responded with a line that would become world famous: “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
As Brian Palmer of Slate observed recently, there’s a basic truth and a few misconceptions packed into those three sentences. For one thing, the polio vaccine is nothing like the sun; it wasn’t a natural phenomenon but the work of a team of researchers. Salk’s remark that the vaccine was owned by “the people” sounds noble and altruistic, but the truth is that the vaccine development had been funded in large part by millions of small donations to the charity known today as the March of Dimes (and then known formally as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis), and from public health budgets.
But the more important reason the vaccine went unpatented, as related by David M. Oshinsky in his 2005 book, “Polio: An American Story,” is that legally it was thought to be unpatentable. The National Foundation and the University of Pittsburgh, where much of the work was done, had looked into patenting the vaccine.
They were dissuaded by Salk, who informed them that his techniques weren’t novel and his work had been based on years of prior work by others. “If there were any patentable novelty to be found in this phase,” their patent attorney reported, “it would lie within an extremely narrow scope and would be of doubtful value.”
The foundation’s interest ostensibly lay not in securing a profit center but in retaining the authority to oversee the quality of the vaccine. In short order, however, it began to act more like a pharmaceutical firm — at least in the view of Sabin. Oshinsky quotes Sabin as grousing to a friend that although the foundation was supporting him financially, “The foundation seems to behave more like a commercial company with a vested interest in a certain patent than as a dispassionate scientific foundation intent on getting at all the truth.”
Yet that’s nothing compared with what might happen today with a vaccine showing more than 90% effectiveness against an epidemic disease; there would be lawsuits and rent-seeking by major pharmaceutical corporations and penny-pinching by insurance companies. There would be warnings about the dangers of the drug from anti-vaccination activists, whose views would be promoted on daytime TV shows and listened to by parents in some of our most affluent and educated communities.
Thanks to our soft-headed, anti-science approach to life-saving medicines, there would be little chance of eradicating polio in the U.S. Instead we might still face periodic outbreaks of polio, as we do of measles and whooping cough. It’s fortunate for all the generations of Americans since 1955 that Salk’s vaccine was introduced long ago, during a more innocent, but a smarter, age.