In 1900, a new wonder-drug was discovered and patented. Over the next 10 years multiple companies protested that patent, which led to a man named Learned Hand making rules about a scientific discovery, while declaring that he probably shouldn’t be allowed to do so.

It was the 1890s, and John Jacob Abel believed he was on to something. It had been established that when researchers took substances from the adrenal glands of sheep and cattle, and injected those substances into other animals, the injectee’s heart rate and blood pressure went up. This didn’t happen in all animals — when rabbits were injected they just keeled over and died — and it wasn’t possible to inject animal gloop into human subjects, but if he could find out what exactly in the adrenal secretions caused this response and then could purify it, he could do a lot of good.

He was not able to purify the substance. Abel and a colleague, Albert Crawford, did manage to purify a crystalline substance that they called epinephrine, but it turned out to be a derivative of the real stuff. Jokichi Takamine (left), a scientist who worked for Parke-Davis, a major pharmaceutical company, took a look at Abel’s methods and thought he could do better. He and his fellow chemist, Keizo Uenaka, used Abel’s technique for clearing away fat and protein. They then soaked what was left in weak acid, and added ammonia. What precipitated out was a crystal that they called adrenaline.


The battle for credit and naming rights will never be fully settled. All of the scientists working on the process deserve acclaim. (With some acclaim to spare for Thomas Aldrich, another Parke-Davis employee who figured out the structure of adrenaline, and Friedrich Stolz, an independent chemist who figured out how to synthesize the stuff.) As for naming, the public usually refers to the substance as “adrenaline,” but the medical establishment calls it epinephrine.

The process was a medical revolution. Doctors soon learned that adrenaline helped control hemorrhages, get blood pressure up, increase heart rates, and even calm asthma attacks. Takamine, who filed a patent in 1900, was making stacks of money both for himself and Parke-Davis. It wasn’t too long before H.K. Mulford, another pharmaceutical company, was also marketing adrenaline — claiming that adrenaline was a hormone found in the body, and that therefore Parke-Davis couldn’t patent it.

This is a dispute that took place over a hundred years ago, but feels very modern. The validity of biological patents is still under debate. The latest twist happened in 2013, when the Supreme Court declared that naturally occurring DNA sequences couldn’t be patented. The first twist, and the one that set us approximately on the path we’re on now, was the Parke-Davis and H.K. Mulford patent dispute.


The man who made the decision was called Billings Learned Hand (left), a name customarily shortened to — no fooling — Learned Hand. Learned Hand was a philosopher and judge, and is a beloved figure in legal circles, despite the fact that he criticized civil rights rulings in the 1950s. (He believed that courts should only rarely step in, and that most governing should be done by legislatures.) When faced with this case he studied chemistry as much as he could, and eventually decided in Takamine and Parke-Davis’s favor. Natural substances could be patented, he said, provided that they had been purified and isolated. He interrupted his decision with a quote that rings true today, “I cannot stop without calling attention to the extraordinary condition of the law which makes it possible for a man without a knowledge of even the rudiments of chemistry to pass upon such questions as these.”

Science, government, and economics — always a tough mix.

Top Image: WalknBoston, Takamine Image: Images from the History of Medicine, Hand Image: Harvard University

[Sources: Adrenalin and Cherry Trees, Proof.]