When Greed Had A Bound

Harry Steenbock on is lab at the University of Wisconsin

Back in the 1920s, a University of Wisconsin biochemist named Harry Steenbock thumbed his nose at a basket full of cash for himself so he could ensure his scientific discovery would help millions of sick kids. How’s that for social responsibility?

So what was Prof. Steenbock’s discovery? In 1923 Steenbock found that exposing a variety of biological substances to ultraviolet light of certain wavelengths imparted to those substances the property of preventing rickets, a serious bone-weakening disease. At that time rickets was very prevalent, especially among poor children living in industrialized cities. Some historians say that Tiny Tim, the child hero of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, was afflicted with rickets.

A child with rickets

In Dickens’ time the principal ways to cure or prevent rickets were exposure to sunlight and ingesting yucky tasting cod liver oil. Steenbock recognized immediately that his discovery could be incredibly helpful in curing and preventing rickets because the anti-rickets property could be “captured” in food, including grains. In this way children did not have to be relocated to get sunshine and they could obtain the anti-rickets effect in something they liked to consume.

Steenbock did not know it then, but further research showed that his rickets-preventing discovery was due to the transformation of a chemical in plant material (ergosterol) to a different chemical (ergocalciferol, otherwise known as vitamin D2), that is a basic building block of biologically active vitamin D (1,25 dihydroxy vitamin D). Active Vitamin D operates directly in skin cells and is carried via the bloodstream throughout the body to regulate calcium and phosphate biology, to promote bone health. Thus, no more rickets.

Prof. Steenbock knew the social and medical importance of his finding and immediately patented the process with $300 of his own money to protect it from abuse by unscrupulous cheats and charlatans. In a footnote to the scientific report of his research, Steenbock wrote “To protect the interest of the public in the possible commercial use of these and other findings soon to be published, applications for Letters Patent, both as to processes and products, have been filed with the United States Patent Office and will be handled by the University of Wisconsin.”

Quaker Oats Co. offered Steenbock $1 million for the rights to use his process to fortify its products with the anti-rickets capacity. Steenbock turned down the offer (about $10 million in today’s dollars). Rather than line his own pockets, Steenbock joined forces with eight other University of Wisconsin alumni to form the nonprofit Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) to manage licensing of the process and distribution of the profits to support research at the University.

In 1927, for $1 million, WARF licensed to Quaker Oats Company the rights to use Steenbock’s irradiation process to fortify breakfast cereals. Not long after, WARF licensed Steenbock’ process to a number of pharmaceutical companies to make anti-rickets medicines. WARF also licensed the process to dairies to produce fortified milk. Companies that made products that were not nutritional food, such as chewing gum, beer, lipstick, and cigarettes, were not permitted to license the process. Because of Steenbock’s discovery, by 1945 when the patent expired, rickets had virtually disappeared from North America and much of Europe.

Nowadays, a scientist in Steenbock’s position would feel pressure to exploit a discovery to make as much money as possible for him or herself. The Harvard Business Review even offers scientists advice on commercializing their discoveries . Apparently social responsibility was more common back in the day. Kudos to a man who preferred contributing to the greater good than fattening his bank account.