On Patents Being Bad for Your Career

I’m deep in the throes of a paper looking at universities and the evolving view of patents therein, and I ran across the following dandy quote. It is from a letter written in 1917 by biologist Jacques Loeb of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York, and it concerned his former student T. Brailsford Robertson’s decision to patent tethelin, a pituitary gland extract thought to promote growth:

“When I spoke to an influential person . . . suggesting Robertson for that chair [in physiology at Johns Hopkins], I was told that Robertson had hurt himself by taking a patent on tethelin. . . . If the rumor is unfounded, I wish you would let me know at once so that I can contradict it. I do not think that Robertson cares for the chair but I do not want such a rumor to spread if it is false. If it should be true that Robertson has patented tethelin. . . . I think it would be fair to tell Robertson how strong the prejudice against such things is in the east, and perhaps to put him on guard for future action.”

In the end, Johns Hopkins rejected Robertson for the chair position, in part over the patent issue. It is, of course, a remarkable difference from current attitudes on campus, where patents are vitally important to research income, with some universities even including patent production in the tenure review process.