Polio ravaged much of the United States during the 20th century, leaving thousands sick, paralyzed, and dead. Those who were not afflicted with the virus were constantly haunted by the terror that their loved ones—particularly children, who were most vulnerable—would awaken one morning unable to walk and destined to a life of leg braces and iron lungs. That is until 1953, when Jonas Salk created a vaccine. There were more than 45,000 total cases of polio in the United States in each of the two years before the vaccine became broadly available. By 1962 there were only 910. Salk’s invention was one of the greatest successes in the history of American public health.

Amidst the adulation and fame that came with saving untold numbers of lives, Salk did something that seems curious if not unwise by today’s standards: he refused to patent the vaccine. During a 1955 interview, Edward R. Murrow asked Salk who owned the patent, leading a seemingly bewildered Salk to respond, “The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

These days...