Myths of the medical methods exclusion: Medicine and patents in nineteenth century Britain

Robert Burrell, Catherine Kelly

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This paper explores the interaction of British medical practitioners with the nascent intellectual property system in the nineteenth century. It challenges the generally accepted view that throughout the nineteenth century there was a settled or professionally agreed hostility to patenting. It demonstrates that medical practitioners made more substantial use of the patent system and related forms of protection than has previously been recognised. Nevertheless, the rate of patenting remained lower than in other fields of technical endeavour, but this can largely be explained by the public nature of medical practice during this period. This paper therefore seeks to retell the history of the exclusion of medical methods from patent protection, an exclusion whose history has produced a substantial body of scholarship. However, its aims go beyond this in that it also seeks to illuminate how medical practitioners engaged with the broader political and policy landscape in order to secure financial remuneration for their inventions. Through an exploration of how prominent doctors interacted with Parliament around claims for a financial reward, it demonstrates that doctors sought to use reputational advantage to leverage financial success and the important role that Parliament could play in that process.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)607-626
Number of pages20
JournalLegal Studies
Issue number4
Early online date28 Sept 2018
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018

Structured keywords

  • LAW Centre for Health Law and Society
  • Health and Wellbeing
  • LAW Centre for Law and History Research


  • methods of medical treatment
  • patent history
  • parliamentary rewards


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