Jonas Salk was born in New York City of parents with limited formal education. When he was 15, he entered a high school for gifted children of immigrants. He completed high school in three years and enrolled in the City College of New York (CCNY) to pursue a degree in Chemistry. He then went to New York University to study medicine. His focus was on medical research, not the practice of medicine.
Polio was one of the world’s greatest fears at the time and Salk decided to focus his research interests on eradicating polio. He developed a vaccine using a killed virus. After initial tests on animals and children who were mentally handicapped, the vaccine was then tested on 1,000,000 children. The vaccine was approved in 1955.
Salk did not file for a patent on the vaccine so that it could be accessible by children everywhere, no matter their personal situation. Salk was a private man and was overcome by the publicity that resulted from his discovery. Salk founded his own research institute and continued work on other serious health matters, including AIDS.
Albert Sabin was an immigrant to America from Poland. Salk’s vaccine was effective in preventing most forms of polio but did not prevent the initial intestinal infection. Sabin developed an oral vaccine to stimulate polio antibody production without causing paralysis. The vaccine was tested on 100 million people in other parts of the world. The success of these trials led to tests on 130,000 children in the U.S. The vaccine was approved in 1961.
Sabin also refused to patent his vaccine to make it available worldwide. Like Salk, Sabin created his own research institute.
The research for a polio vaccine took years and was tested on millions of subjects prior to its approval as being safe. Contrast this to the search for a COVID-19 vaccine. Any innovations must undergo serious testing before it is widely adopted. While not all innovations involve human subjects, the part of the Hippocratic Oath (First, do no harm) applies to any type of innovation.
While the pace of our society has increased, we cannot afford to adopt innovations without careful testing. Unfortunately, there is often pressure to implement change before it is adequately tested. Once an innovation is thoroughly tested and proven worthy, then there will be those who invent conspiracies about the evils of the innovation. You have to wonder how the polio vaccines developed by Salk and Sabin would have been accepted had social media been in existence at the time.
Just imagine what the quest for a Covid-19 vaccine tells us about innovation. The concept of first do no harm, which has been one of rigorous testing, has become infected by politics and unfounded conspiracies. How might the erosion of first do no harm have on innovation practices in general?
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“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
— André Gide (winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature)