Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation
Kevin Walters has been a Historian and Strategic Research Coordinator for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation since 2011, where his duties include written communications, public outreach, policy consulting, and archives management. He holds a PhD in History from UW-Madison, MAs in History and Humanities from the University of Texas at Dallas, and a BA from the University of Texas at Austin. His academic research focuses on the history of higher education, technology transfer, and nonprofit institutions.
Vitamin D supplements, vitamin D milk, and, yes, even vitamin D beer – they all originated right here in Wisconsin. But why here, and how did they do it? The answers to those questions involve a millennia old mystery about the connections between diseases and foods, a 19th century scientific competition to be the first to figure out the secrets of nutrition, and the 20th century emergence of American consumerism. They also involve a heavy dose of what we like to call the Wisconsin Idea. You’ll also find out why so many Wisconsinites used to smuggle margarine across the border.
Through a series of ad hoc decisions in 1924 and 1925, a group of professionals connected to the University of Wisconsin concocted an independent, non-profit corporation designed to patent and license academic inventions, invest the resulting funds in a perpetual endowment, and donate the proceeds to support scientific research at their university. Harry Steenbock, the biochemistry professor who dedicated his lucrative vitamin D patents to WARF in 1925, hoped that the foundation would commercialize scientific research for the betterment of humanity. Meanwhile, Thomas E. Brittingham, Jr., whose investment strategy made WARF a runaway financial success, argued that the foundation should focus on growing its endowment through market-based business strategies. By 1960, thirty-five years after WARF’s founding, the clash of these two competing philosophies, and the added complication of two strong egos, forced a new generation of WARF leadership to reconcile the competing legacies of their founders. WARF combined the nascent “academic capitalism” represented by Brittingham and the “scientific democracy” embodied by Steenbock to devise novel and at times counterintuitive methods for negotiating science, capitalism and democracy in the United States.
A syndicated story, printed in newspapers in March 1940, placed the record-setting winnings of Seabiscuit, the plucky, inspirational racehorse of the Depression Era, within the context of other famous careers. The piece reported that the horse had earned more than President Roosevelt, and more than Babe Ruth, but still not as much as a movie star like Greta Garbo. To make the story more relatable for the average reader, the comparison also included “Dr. Harry Steenbock” described as “a professor at Wisconsin” who “saved millions of children from the crippling effects of rickets by developing [a] process for introducing vitamin D into foods through action of ultraviolet rays” but “refused a million dollars for his process.” The humble professor’s salary, over the course of his entire career, earned him about half of what Seabiscuit won in just five years.
The papers got it wrong. In truth, royalties from the vitamin D process had outpaced Seabiscuit by 1940 and, before long, Steenbock would have a net worth higher than Garbo. The wealthier he became from his science, the more he was celebrated for turning down a fortune for the sake of science. This lecture will explain the seeming paradox of Steenbock’s fame along with what it can tell us about the history of vitamins, science, and the university.
- The Agricultural Roots of Technology Transfer
Despite its reputation for vitamin D patents and the drug warfarin (aka Coumadin), the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) owned and operated boat tours and concessions in the Wisconsin Dells for almost fifty years. Why? In Wisconsin history, agricultural science, business, and conservation have always been joined at the hip.
Many popular histories of the University of Wisconsin focus on the progressive tradition of John Bascom, Robert La Follette, and Charles Van Hise. While the contributions of those leaders have earned their rightful place, they only tell us half the story. Unlike many of its peers, UW-Madison contains both a traditional campus, focused on the liberal arts, as well as a land-grant campus, focused on the agricultural and mechanical arts. This presentation will explain how agricultural science played a crucial role in shaping the identity of the university and, by extension, the Wisconsin Idea.
- Patents and the Law at U.S. Universities