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Recognizing Jonas Salk

by David Aft

As I was waiting for a colleague to join me for breakfast, I took a moment to flip through Facebook and catch up on the meanderings of friends, family and the world at large. Within my first few clicks I was greeted with a reminder that today is the birthday of Dr. Jonas Salk. Most will remember that Salk led the team of researchers who developed the polio vaccine.

To put things in perspective, until the discovery of this very simple and effective measure, tens of thousands of people a year succumbed to the debilitating ravages of Polio. The disease spared few who were infected, often leaving its victims with a lifetime of crippling illness. The human cost was immeasurable.

The work of Salk and his team changed the face of the world.

For this alone, our species owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to this pioneering researcher.

While Salk’s gift to humanity has few equals in the annals of history, it is not his discovery that I find most remarkable – it is how he chose to handle the commercial implications of his work.

In most cases, pharmaceutical companies and other researchers invest vast sums of money in the development of new drugs and treatments. They do this for humanitarian and commercial reasons. Many would argue, and I would agree, that those who invest their resources in developing today’s miracle cures should receive adequate compensation for their work, as it is often speculative and extremely expensive.

When confronted with these issues, Salk chose not to retain ownership of vaccine, rather choosing to make it available to all who could use it and licensing its production for free.

In this case, one of the twentieth century’s greatest discoveries could have been a hugely successful pharmaceutical product. Salk could have made millions, if not billions, of dollars. Instead, he chose to make nothing, preferring to give his very special discovery to the world for free.

This arrangement has played a significant role making sure this lifesaving vaccine would be available to everyone at a very low cost. He chose to take his profits in the form of direct benefit to humanity.

While difficult to estimate its financial value, the human value of this approach has been unbelievable in scale. The lives that have been saved and the number of Polio cases that have been prevented can be measured in the millions.

Polio has nearly been eliminated world-wide, with fewer than 50 cases being reported in 2015. A staggering statistic given that in the early twentieth century, public health officials estimated that there were about 50,000 new cases of Polio each year, just in the US.

Salk’s gift is possibly the greatest charitable gift of all time, and it keeps on giving.

Thank you, Dr. Salk!

David Aft is the president of the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia. He has worked in the nonprofit field for over twenty-five years and is a recognized resource and noted speaker on charitable enterprise, civics, fundraising strategy and community development.