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Professor Harry Steenbock’s irradiation patent

Posted on: April 24, 2012   by  John Cannell, MD


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.

[No authors listed] VITAMIN D PATENTS. Science. 1943 Jul 23;98(2534):78-9. No abstract available.

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.”

4 Responses to Professor Harry Steenbock’s irradiation patent

  1. [email protected]

    That was a long time ago.
    Jumping to 2012, we find that the same organization, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, now is the largest holder of vitamin D patents in the world, with 162 patents.
    There are 1,000+ patents for vitamin D, generally for treating diseases.
    See details at http://www.vitamindwiki.com/tiki-index.php?page_id=972

  2. [email protected]

    Synchronicity lives! I have been doodling about in the Vitamin D Council Archive and having a lovely time. Just read Dr Cannell’s 2006 “Is Vitamin D an Antibiotic – Antimicrobial Peptides” article in which he talks about blood irradiation – I was thinking to myself that I should suggest he revisits it as it is so easy to miss some of the fantastic info in the Archives! Came back to the Home Page and here is Dr Cannell talking about irradiation!

    My experience with vitamin D is that it works better than antibiotics for me to treat a diverticulitis. Until I started supplementing “properly” with vitamin D, I was sick every month to six weeks with exaccerbations of diviticular disease. Each time I was on two strong antibiotics and felt like death warmed up! As soon as I raised my vitamin D serum levels, I STOPPED GETTING SICK. Now if I get a twinge of bowel pain (and I know the feeling well after three years of pain and suffering) I take 20,000 iu per day of vitamin D, extra magnesium orally and transdermally along with my multivitamins. I simply DO NOT GET SICK any more…………Is it any wonder I think Dr Cannell and the Vitamin D Council are wonderful, miraculous and fantastic! This is where I have learnt all the important things I didn’t know before about vitamin D! Thanks Dr C and everyone at the VDC!

  3. JBG

    Tiny side issue: anthracitic? Here’s what I could find about it:

    The adjective ANTHRACITIC has 1 sense:
    1. relating to or resembling anthracite coal
    Familiarity information: ANTHRACITIC used as an adjective is very rare.

    Any idea what anthracitic means in the quoted sentence from the judge’s opinion?

  4. Brant Cebulla

    Good pickup. I believe it should have been — and now reads — “antirachitic” as in an agent used to prevent rickets.

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