How America Fell in Love with Vitamins

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

Brian Alexander tells the story of how America fell in love with vitamins and fortified foods, how public universities were transformed into money-making patent mills serving corporations, and how a clever young man, an electrical engineer from Cincinnati born with an ample supply of ambition and drive, became an unlikely celebrity and was hailed as a genius — all because of vitamin D:

In the beginning, fame was the prize in vitamin research, not money. This is why most of the early research on vitamins took place in universities: Scientists were freed from the demands of commerce. Patenting a discovery was taboo. The ethos demanded science for the sake of science, and for the public good.

But business soon developed a simple formula: If a little bit of vitamin in food was good, more had to be better. The only way to get lots more in one gulp was with a pill, or by finding some way to add more of it to food. Vitamin D, the scourge of rickets, was an especially good candidate for commercialization because most food didn’t have it at all.

With the cultures of business and academia circling each other, it didn’t take long for someone to break the taboo. The big leap came in 1922 when Frederick Banting and Charles Best at the University of Toronto announced that they had treated diabetes with a purified cow pancreas extract called insulin. The two scientists quickly patented their process and gave the rights to the university — which then licensed Eli Lilly and Company to produce insulin for the U.S. and Latin American markets in return for a 5 percent royalty on net sales. Lilly would go on to dominate the insulin market for the next 50 years and grow into a pharmaceutical powerhouse, and the university reaped millions.

For American scientists, it was a eureka moment: Suddenly, universities — and select researchers — could get rich. George Sperti would eventually be one of those lucky researchers. But so would the man who ultimately outplayed him in the arena of science and commerce, relegating Sperti to a curious, if still famous, footnote.

Though he had a nice-guy reputation among his lab employees, Harry Steenbock zealously guarded his turf. You had to if you worked in the vitamin field. An agricultural biochemist at the University of Wisconsin, he had reason to envy the Toronto scientists. His first push to patent a vitamin discovery had been pooh-poohed by the university. He never forgot the slight.

In 1924 Steenbock published a paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry detailing an experiment that involved exposing rat food to light from a quartz-mercury vapor lamp. Rats who ate the irradiated food did not get rickets; control rats did. Somehow, and he wasn’t sure exactly how, the light had activated anti-rachitic properties in the food. Recognizing the potential, Steenbock included an addendum to the paper: “To protect the interest of the public in the possible commercial use of these and other findings soon to be published, applications for Letters of Patent…have been filed with the United States Patent Office.”

It was a bold move, and in some corners of the medical-industrial complex, an outrage. Children were suffering and Steenbock was patenting a possible preventive? The British Drug Houses, a trade group, tried to shame him, declaring in a letter: “As you know, extremely important contributions to this discovery were made by workers in this country who refused to seek any patent protection for their work.”

Steenbock shrugged off the criticism. He foresaw big commercial possibilities for vitamin D. With the help of a tough-minded Chicago patent attorney and Wisconsin alum named George Haight, he set up an independent, private, nonprofit business group called the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). Though not part of the university, its aim was to fund University of Wisconsin research by licensing intellectual property created by university scientists. For the time being, that meant Steenbock, who remained intimately involved in WARF’s vitamin D deals.

Quaker Oats was the first; WARF made a secret agreement with the company in 1926. Quaker could experiment with what was being branded as the “Steenbock Process” for small yearly royalties. If the company commercialized a product, it would pay WARF an annual fee of up to $60,000 (almost $800,000 in today’s dollars) once sales began.

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