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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: A Comment from a Reader on Forceps

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Comment from a Reader on Forceps

I thank CrisisMaven for the comment and the questions to "Forceps," a post that describes how as many as one million babies and mothers died because a doctor named Chamberlen kept secret his innovation of the use of forceps in delivery.  I encourage you to visit "CrisisMaven's Blog."   CrisisMaven wrote,
But what do you suggest? That every inventor be tortured to own up? And how does one find out that he/she invented anything to be elicited in the first place? And what if Chamberlen had shared the fate of semmelweis? Maybe he had other good reasons to keep his secret and it only came out into the open when the world was prepared to accept it? Don't we remember Galilei?

For those not familiar with Semmelweis, he was a doctor who in 1847 conducted research into the cause of high death rate of mothers and their newborns in Vienna General's maternity ward compared to those who gave birth in their homes.  Doctors at the hospital were required to perform autopsies on all who died at the hospital.  Semmelweis discovered that doctors picked up bacteria in performance of the task which they carried with them as they assisted mothers with birth.  The solution was simple.  Semmelweis required doctors to wash their hands and the death rate plummeted.  Sadly, he was not hailed as a hero and his findings and solution were not only ignored but ridiculed by many in the scientific community.  Semmelweis did not handle the criticism well, growing bitter and developing strange lewd behavior that may have been due to insanity or perhaps the onset of Alzheimer's; he died at forty-seven in a sanitarium. 

Galileo Galilei history is better known.  A great scientist, he was persecuted by the church because he stated that some had misinterpreted the Bible. 

CrisisMaven asks what would I suggest?  Often history is simply lamentable and I believe this is such a case.  Lives were saved because of Chamberlen's innovation.  More would have been saved if he or his descendants had shared this knowledge earlier.  As a lover and defender of liberty, I would not suggest that the government try to elicit secret knowledge from its citizens through torture or force.  However, well defined markets that protected new ideas and innovations through copyrights, trademarks and patents might make sharing ideas more profitable than keeping them secret.  The innovator would have to compare the potential profit of the innovation through secrecy with the risk of discovery to the potential profit through time limited copyright, trademarks and patents.  If the innovator chooses secrecy, society is no worse off.  If she chooses protection through law, she benefits as well as society.  It is a difficult, yet proper function of government to design law that best protects the innovator to encourage innovation and limit monopoly granted privileges to maximize benefits to society.   

CrisisMaven is invited to make a response as a guest post if he desires.


  1. Good points all! Here! Here!
    Just an aside about the religion and science comments: Nothing 'bad' happened to Copernicus. Why? The man knew how to kiss up. Galileo read his book after all; so, even his 'banned' book was still available. The real lesson here is there has always been a consequence for those who rail against government bureaucrats who support a scientific viewpoint because 'all the real scientists believe it.' For the scientist in the short term, and for the government in the long term.

  2. I do agree with most of the last paragraph, however, currrently patent law in Europe and the US favours a lot of feigned declarations which not only do not add a thing to humankind's ingeniousness, but rather deter smaller firms from competing because everything is so broadly worded by the big companies that can afford top notch lawyer spin doctors that almost any specialised innovations falls prey to seemingly having been "aforethought". And I am at a loss as tom how to prevent that.