Workshop 2 – Medicine & Healthcare

This second two-day workshop (14-15 July) will investigate patenting cultures with particular regard to medicine & healthcare.  Medicine and healthcare have always had a close relationship with technology via processes of innovation, but only relatively recently with patents for diagnostic, interventive and therapeutic purposes. Historians increasingly seek to explain how this development occurred in those countries which allowed medical patenting in the late nineteenth century, well before the rise of big pharmaceutical companies and the industry of bone replacements (Anderson, Neary and Pickstone). Key questions for this strand include:

i) In national contexts where the patenting of medical products was permissible, how did medical practitioners decide whether to patent their innovations? Relevant motivations for some included financial gain from sales or patent licensing achieved by legal protection from infringements by rivals, whilst for others the imperative was to make their devices freely available, often in exchange for other forms of professional credit or eponymous recognition. By contrast, manufacturers and others outside the medical profession were able to capitalise on their exemption from medical codes of conduct: what strategies of patenting, ownership and marketing did they adopt in collaborating with clinicians? More generally: how (far) have informal ethical codes motivated clinicians to embrace eponymity as the legitimate marker of credit for inventive devices instead of financially motivated patenting activity?

ii) How did decisions about patenting affect the usage and user perception of specific medical technologies? To what extent did the patented status of a device affects its price, its availability, and its perceived therapeutic or diagnostic efficacy, and how did this change when patents expired? To what extent did patented instruments and those eponymously named after specific individuals secure greater cachet and credibility among both professionals and high-street entrepreneurs? Recent research has revealed major challenges for inventors in gaining credibility outside the formal clinical sphere in the early 20th century, highlighting new roles for patenting and commerce in medicine.

iii) How did patents and the process of patenting function as a marketing tool for medical technologies? Numerous devices were emblazoned with a patent number and country, or simply the phrase “patent pending”, sometimes even with fraudulent claims to patented status. How important was this within the various roles of persuading potential purchasers (both medical practitioners and patients) that the device was trustworthy and effective, dissuading competitors from manufacturing similar kinds of tools, and or justifying a particular luxury price tag?

The patenting of biomedicine is of particular importance within a global picture. Strong taboos in continental Europe against proprietary appropriation seem eventually to have been overcome by the precepts of Anglo-American liberalism that privileged novelty above ethics, but existing scholarship does not explain how, why and when this transition occurred.