In the 1930s, Professor Harry Steenbock discovered that if you irradiate most naturally occurring things, from alfalfa to milk to human blood, the process induces production of what the world would eventually know as vitamin D. Dr. Steenbock quickly patented this irradiation “invention.”
Its greatest use was in the irradiation of milk, a process that substantially reduced the frequency of rickets in countries that allowed the practice. In an act of immense generosity, Steenbock assigned the majority of the profits made by the patents to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which subsequently used the money to turn the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Biochemistry into the envy of the world.
However, according to Science, The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals stripped Steenbock of his patent in 1943, labeling Professor Steenbock’s work a “discovery” and not an “invention.” By that time, Steenbock’s patent had already delivered 7.5 million dollars to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. That is equal to about 100 million dollars in 2012.
The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with Professor Steenbock and labeled his “invention” a “discovery.” Key to the decision was Steenbock’s insistence that his invention pertained to all ultraviolet rays, including those from the sun. Initially, he used a mercury vapor lamp in his irradiation process but somewhere along the line enlarged that to “all ultraviolet rays.” Such was his downfall.
The judges quick acumen led them to question the process of the sun’s repleting alfalfa with vitamin D. “If the patent be valid, it is thus seen that the farmer is an infringer when he exposes his cut alfalfa to the ultra-violet rays of the sun long enough to make it antirachitic.” No, they said to Dr. Steenbock, you have discovered something, not invented anything.
The judges were not immune to the great man’s shadow. “The clear vision of such a scientific investigator as Dr. Steenbock well may create vastly higher indebtedness from the world of human beings then owed to the inventors of mechanism and processes to whom his vision is the inspiration.”