For being at the right place at the wrong time, Bernard Erlanger missed the road to riches back in 1957. The Columbia University microbiologist knew that he had helped pioneer a powerful technique for making antibodies to steroids, and he even suspected that it might have commercial applications. Indeed, the method is now commonly used for everything from controlling animal litter size to testing human hormonal disorders—and the paper Erlanger wrote has become one of the most cited in history.

At the time, a company was anxious to pursue the method’s possibilities, but it wouldn’t proceed without a guarantee of exclusivity. And when the microbiologist and his three colleagues approached the dean of Columbia’s medical school about patenting the discovery, the notion was quickly squelched. “The dean said, ‘No, this is unethical. Biomedical material should not be patented,”’ sighs Erlanger.

“We chuckle and say ‘Boy, just think if the dean...

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