University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
The University of Wisconsin Collection

Page View

Murphy, Thomas H. (ed.) / Wisconsin alumnus
Volume 77, Number 2 (Jan. 1976)

Jordan, Wm. R., III
WARF: a half century of progress,   pp. 4-6

Page 4

By Win. R. Jordan III Ph.D. '71
UIR Science Writer
   Late in the fall of 1923, Harry
 Steenbock, a young biochemist here
 at the University, made a startling dis-
 covery. He found that he could
 prevent-or even reverse-the symp-
 toms of rickets in rats by feeding
 them a mixture of millet seed and
 casein that had been exposed to sun-
 light or other source of ultraviolet
 light. Further experiments showed
 that the irradiation treatment induced
 synthesis in the ration, and in many
 other foods, of the "fat soluble
 vitamine D" which had just been
 discovered by Elmer V. McCollum,
 a former colleague of Steenbock at
   In 1923, both vitamin D and sun-
 shine were known to prevent or
 cure rickets, but the relation between
 the two was a, mystery. By linking
 them, Steenbock had shown how
 to trap some of the magic of sunlight
 -its power to form one of nature's
 rarest vitamins-in a box of cereal
 or a bottle of milk. Steenbock saw
 that the results of the experiments he
 was completing just a few days
 before Christmas held enormous
 promise for public health.
   The route to widespread fulfillment
 of this promise was, however, far
 from clear. Recent events had shown
 that the easy way of introducing an
 idea to the public-simply publishing
 it and abandoning it to commercial
 interests-was not -always the best
 way. It seemed that, in some cases at
 least, a patent on a new idea, giving
 the discoverer some control over its
 commercial development, was
 called for. But patenting the irradia-
 tion process would be a complicated
 affair, one which Steenbock had no
 desire to undertake on his own.
 Taking out the patent would be
 expensive; managing it would take
 up much time, and if successful, the
 patent would yield royalties which
 Steenbock stoutly believed ought to
 return to the University at which
 the idea had been conceived.
   Just a few years earlier 'he had
found the Board of Regents cold
to his suggestion that they take out
and manage for the benefit of the
University a patent on a process he
had developed for the isolation of
vitamin A. Clearly, if his latest dis-
covery were to yield its full benefit to
society and to the University, it
would have to be matched by yet
another idea.
   Inklings of a solution came from
 Chicago where a consulting chemist
 and a patent attorney had put
 together a plan for a patent-managing
 foundation which would provide
 money to a university but which had
 the novel feature of carefully separat-
 ing its management from the uni-
 versity's. Steenbock learned of it
 early in 1924. He discussed it with
 Harry L. Russell, then dean of the
 College of Agriculture, who shared his
 enthusiasm and carried it to the re-
 gents. They, however, saw the scheme
 as a speculative venture, well out-
 side their authority as managers
 of public funds.
   In the spring of 1925, just before
the deadline for filing for patents
on the irradiation process, help came.
Graduate School Dean Charles Sum-
ner Slichter learned that the Quaker
Oats Company had offered Steen-
bock $900,000 for exclusive rights
to a patent on the irradiation
process. "I'll go to New York right
away," Steenbock, thirty-five years
later, recalled Slichter as saying, "and
I'll come back with plenty of funds
to set up your foundation."
   Stopping in Chicago and New
 York, Slichter contacted key 'alumni,
 urging them to lend funds toward
 the formation of a foundation which
 would manage patents on the irradia-
 tion process for the benefit of
 research at the University. He
 returned with pledges for $10,000
 -to which he himself added $2000-
 for further research and a patent
   Early in May, Slichter and Russell
again went before the regents-this
time with a proposal that would cost
the University nothing at all and
that clearly stood a chance of yield-
ing considerable support to its growing
research program. The regents
approved the plan in this form and
the work of drawing up a charter
got underway. It was granted on
November 14, 1925, establishing the
Wisconsin Alumni Research Founda-
tion. WARF would have no capital
stock and would pay its members
no dividends. Its only business would
be to aid research at the University
through grants made from income
accruing from patent management, in-
vestments and gifts. Its trustees were
five Wisconsin alumni. In addition
to George I. Haight, who becames its
first president, they were: investor
Thomas E. Brittingham, Jr., attorney
Timothy Brown, bank president Lucien

Go up to Top of Page