Vitamin D for Profits – 1923 to 1946

The profiting from vitamin D began after Harry Steenbock, professor UW-Madison, discovered that by irradiating rats chow, he could cure the vermin of rickets in 1923.  Thirty years earlier, Steenbock’s predecessor at UW biochemistry department did not get a patent for a process to determine milk fat and lost control of the quality.  Steenbock did not want to repeat the same mistake.  He used $300 of his own money to file for a patent.  He was immediately offered $1,000,000 by Quaker Oats for exclusive rights.  He thought that the university should have the gains from the patent and with others founded the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation in 1925.

Sometime in the early 1940’s, Warf sued Vitamins Technologist, Los Angeles, CA for patent infringement.  The lower court ruled that Warf’s patents had been infringed.  The US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, June 1943, that WARF’s patents were invalid.  “Gist of the 1943 opinion was that a process using solar energy could not be patented since solar energy is available to all mankind…….”  Then:

“Ruling Killed on Vitamin D” – U. W. Patent Involved, August 24, 1943 Milwaukee Journal The US Court of appeals changes its position of June 1943 where they had invalidated patents on vitamin D that were held by the University of Wisconsin for preventing and curing rickets with food treated with UV rays.  The University says that the “Steenbock” patents had netted 7.5 million in royalties from 250 companies.

One year later the government decided to take further action- this case started when the foundation sued Douglas Laboratories of Chicago in July, 1943.  The government entered the case in February, 1944 stating, “it wanted to ‘protect the public interest’ in the manufacture and sale of vitamin products.”

“New Charges on Vitamin D,” October 21, 1944 Milwaukee Journal
Anti-trust action was brought against Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation – Charges include: “operated to prevent competition”, “prices were kept ‘unreasonably’ high for persons who most needed vitamin D – the poor and children suffering from or threaten with rickets.”

Defendants listed are: Charles Bowman for General Mills Corporation, E. I. du Pont de Nemours, Quaker Oats, Standard Brands, Gelatin Products Corp., Borden Co., Carnation Co., Nestle Milk Products, Inc., Vitamins Inc., Abbott Laboratories, Meade Johnson & Co., William S. Merrill Co., Parke-Davis Co., R. Squibb & Sons, Winthrop Chemical Co.  “General Mills Corp. was named as a co-conspirator, but will not be a defendant in the action.”

The charges were for seven years of price fixing and preventing competition in the vitamin D market.  Charges included manufacturing ergocalciferol for $0.15 per million IU and selling it to the public through its licensees for as much as $10.80 per million IU.  Is this different than the pharmaceutical industry today?  Profits were reported at 7.5 to 8.5 million USD during the period considered.

The next day the Montreal Gazette reports that Wendell Berge, Assistant Attorney General, delivered this blow before the Senate war mobilization subcommittee:

Montreal Gazette October 22, 1944 Charges Vitamin D Kept from Public U. S. Official Charges Research Body of Shielding International Monopoly ‘Special to the New York Times and the Montreal Gazette’.

Words were not minced in this follow up article the next day – “That a research foundation established to protect the public against ‘unscrupulous commercialism’ has been led by a love of profit to ‘act as a screen behind which a group of monopolistic chemical, pharmaceutical and food companies control vitamin D,’ was contended before the Senate war mobilization subcommittee today by Wendell Burge, assistant attorney general.” Please note in this article that the Executive Branch of government is giving the legislative branch information about the action of large corporations during the height of WWII.  Berge claimed that WARF had “been a vehicle for creating a domestic monopoly resulting in division of fields, price fixing, and limitation of potency of vitamin products; that it had considered the denaturing of vitamin D preparations to maintain high prices; that it had organized cartels with J. G. Farben of Germany and Joseph Nathan and Co., Great Britain to eliminate world competition; that it had acted as a police organization for its licensees to maintain prices; that it had tried to suppress truthful advertising to eliminate competition;….” WOW!  Now this is right at the height of WWII and the Senate must have been considering what WARF’s role was in international relationships as the war was being fought.

The next action is when the charges were resolved by giving the Vitamin D rights to the public.  This seems odd to me as the WARF website reports that their patents on vitamin D expired in 1945.  Delay in the news?

Vitamin D Rights Giving to Public, January 15, 1946 Spokesman-Review

‘….patents owned by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation have been dedicated to the public.’  Original charges against the foundation and 17 other defendants were ‘unlawfully conspiring to restrain and monopolize trade and commerce in vitamin D and vitamin D products.’

New York Times, January 15, 1946 – “Vitamin D Patents Given to Public; U. S. Court Decree Ends Civil Anti-Trust Suit Against the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation PROHIBITIVE COST SITED Asst. Dist. Attorney Says Persons Who Most Needed Rickets Cure Were Unable to Get It”

The Milwaukee Journal was much nicer –

Milwaukee Journal January 15, 1946 “Alumni Group Plans to Build – Madison Tract Bought”

This picture from 1948 is most likely the construction on that land.

I will not make an editorial comment as you could not make this stuff up if you wanted to.  – Pandemic Survivor