Me and my research: Object lessons - Museums Association

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Me and my research: Object lessons

Jamie Stark on how the study of patents in medical technology can reveal hidden histories
Interview by John Holt
The University of Leeds and the Thackray Medical Museum have collaborated extensively in recent years on a wide range of subjects including the history of medical trade catalogues, the forceps-lever rivalry in midwifery, and anthrax.

My AHRC-funded project with the Thackray, Patently Innovative, looks at how patenting and other forms of ownership have been used in medical technologies.

By using patents as primary historical resources, we can help unlock hidden histories and new stories behind these objects.

The project has stimulated some rich areas of research. We have found that medical devices have been patented (or not) for a wide variety of different reasons.

Doctors and surgeons who developed new technologies may have wanted to preserve their reputations by not patenting their inventions; instead, these devices often bore their names.

Medical entrepreneurs were more ready to engage in the practice, using the label “patented” to assure users of the novelty and efficacy of their inventions and to ward off competitors.

It has been challenging to turn these definitions of “ownership” into accessible narratives, but our public consultation work has shown that there is real engagement with questions of invention, intellectual property and professional ethics.

Jamie Stark is a research fellow at the University of Leeds

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