Sulfa: First Antibiotic Was Pursued for Profit

  Source of the book image:


Economists have debated whether patents mainly provide incentives, or obstacles, to innovation.  In the story of the development of sulfa, the first powerful antibiotic, the desire for profit, through patents, was one motive that drove an important part of the development process; this, even though, in the end, sulfa turned out not to be patentable:

(p. P9) Mr. Hager follows a group of doctors into postwar German industry — specifically into the dye conglomerate IG Farben.  These men, having witnessed horrible deaths by infection on the battlefield, picked up on Ehrlich’s hypothesis by trying to synthesize a dye that specifically stained and killed bacteria.  Led by the physician-scientist Gerhard Domagk, they brought German know-how, regimentation and industry to the enterprise.

Year after year the team infected mice with streptococci, the bacteria responsible for so many deadly infections in humans.  The researchers then treated the mice with various dyes but had to watch as thousands upon thousands of them died despite such treatment.  Nothing seemed to work.  The 1920s turned into the ’30s, and still Domagk and his team held to Ehrlich’s idea.  There was simply no better idea around.

Then one of the old hands at IG Farben mentioned that he could get dyes to stick to wool and to fade less by attaching molecular side-chains containing sulfur to them.  Maybe what worked for wool would work for bacteria by making the dye adhere to the bacteria long enough to kill it.

. . .

The IG Farben conglomerate expected huge profits from Prontosil.  But then French scientists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris dashed these dreams.  The German scientists — all of them Ehrlich disciples — thought that the power to cure infection rested in the dye, with the sulfa side-chain merely holding the killer dye to the bacteria.  The scientists at the Pasteur Institute, though, showed that the sulfa side-chain alone worked against infection just as well as the Prontosil compound.  In fact, the dye fraction of the compound was useless.  You could have Ehrlich’s magic bullet without Ehrlich’s big idea!  This bombshell rendered the German patents worthless.  The life-saver "drug" turned out to be a simple, unpatentable chemical available in bulk everywhere.


For the full review, see: 

PAUL MCHUGH.  "BOOKS; Medicine’s First Miracle Drug."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., September 30, 2006):  P9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


The reference for the book is: 

Thomas Hager.  The Demon Under The Microscope.  Harmony, 340 pages, $24.95

Some Evidence Patents Matter

Apparently the evidence is mixed on the importance of patents as an incentive to innovation, though it always seemed intuitive to me that patents should matter. Petra Moser has just published research from his dissertation, that seems to add evidence on the side of patents mattering:

How Do Patent Laws Influence Innovation? Evidence from Nineteenth-Century World’s Fairs

Petra Moser

Abstract: Studies of innovation have focused on the effects of patent laws on the number of innovations, but have ignored effects on the direction of technological change. This paper introduces a new dataset of close to fifteen thousand innovations at the Crystal Palace World’s Fair in 1851 and at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 to examine the effects of patent laws on the direction of innovation. The paper tests the following argument: if innovative activity is motivated by expected profits, and if the effectiveness of patent protection varies across industries, then innovation in countries without patent laws should focus on industries where alternative mechanisms to protect intellectual property are effective. Analyses of exhibition data for 12 countries in 1851 and 10 countries in 1876 indicate that inventors in countries without patent laws focused on a small set of industries where patents were less important, while innovation in countries with patent laws appears to be much more diversified. These findings suggest that patents help to determine the direction of technical change and that the adoption of patent laws in countries without such laws may alter existing patterns of comparative advantage across countries. (JEL D2, K11, L51, N0, O14)

Moser, Petra. “How Do Patent Laws Influence Innovation? Evidence from Nineteenth-Century World Fairs.” The American Economic Review 95, no. 4 (2005): 1214-1236.