WARF Decade by Decade

Written in honor of the foundation’s 90th anniversary, this series looks back at a key moment from each decade in our history


Where the Truth Leads: The Hoard's Dairyman Controversy


Cows in front of the Dairy Barn at the UW College of Agriculture, ca. 1910. Courtesy UW Digital Collections, Photo ID: S07914.
Cows in front of the Dairy Barn at the UW College of Agriculture, ca. 1910. Courtesy UW Digital Collections, Photo ID: S07914.
In late October 1925, one month before the legal incorporation of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Alfred J. Glover, the influential editor of the trade magazine Hoard's Dairyman, challenged the foundation's right to exist.1 Earlier in 1925, Harry Steenbock had conceived the idea for WARF as a vehicle to license his vitamin D patents and use the royalties to support research at the University of Wisconsin.

Glover, a persuasive advocate for dairy farmers and a booster of the university's Agricultural Research Station, worried that an independent foundation of this sort would use public property for private ends and, in the process, undermine Wisconsin's most important industry.

In an attempt to assuage those fears, Harry L. Russell, dean of UW's College of Agriculture and later WARF's first managing director, promised that the foundation's alumni trustees would "follow where truth leads." In reply, Glover asked, "are we doing this when we patent new truths and place them in the hands of a corporation to control?" That question kicked off a long debate among Wisconsin's industry leaders, government officials and university administrators over who should control the products of university research and how the proceeds should be distributed.


Back to the top >>

Get the Sunshine In: The Licensing of Irradiated Milk in 1932


A page from the pamphlet "Feeding Your Baby and Older Children," advertising WARF-licensed evaporated milk with irradiated vitamin D, the "Sunshine Vitamin." Scan taken from the Harry Steenbock Papers, courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Archives.
A page from the pamphlet "Feeding Your Baby and Older Children," advertising WARF-licensed evaporated milk with irradiated vitamin D, the "Sunshine Vitamin." Scan taken from the Harry Steenbock Papers, courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Archives.
The previous installment of Decade by Decade told the story of an influential booster in 1925 who worried that Harry Steenbock’s vitamin D patents would undermine Wisconsin’s dairy industry.1 By the 1940s, controversy would come from the opposite direction. According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in an opinion issued November 24, 1944, the foundation supported “research in natural science of an undisclosed character by the University of Wisconsin, a state of powerful vested interests in dairy enterprises.” For that reason, the court wrote, WARF had chosen to act “against the interest of the public in the health of its citizens” through its “refusal of licensing of the irradiation of oleomargarine, one of the foods of the poor, with the antirachitic vitamin D.” The ruling ordered the invalidation of Steenbock’s patents.2

What had happened during those intervening years to set the young foundation on a collision course with the federal government? 

WARF’s controversial stance towards the oleomargarine industry goes back to the foundation’s earliest days and raises legitimate ethical questions. After all, almost everyone involved with WARF in 1925 believed that allowing the makers of butter substitutes to fortify their products with vitamin D would weaken the market for real butter made in Wisconsin. Steenbock had reservations, but Graduate Dean Charles Slichter, Agriculture Dean Harry L. Russell, and even WARF skeptic, Assistant Dean F.B. Morrison, all agreed that the patent should be used to prevent the “powerful and well organized oleomargarine people,” as Slichter called them, from using Steenbock’s process.3 4


Back to the top >>

Agreeing to Disagree: The End of the Steenbock Patent Debate in 1946


The first WARF building nearing completion in February 1948. Photo courtesy UW Digital Collections, Photo ID: S09775
The first WARF building nearing completion in February 1948. Photo courtesy UW Digital Collections, Photo ID: S09775
Last month’s installment of Decade by Decade recounted how a federal court in 1944 ruled Harry Steenbock’s patents were invalid.1 The decision made little sense in terms of the actual science of vitamin D and can only be understood within the context of a larger political struggle over federal regulation of food and drugs. That struggle included years of litigation and even a public accusation by opposing counsel that WARF colluded with Nazi sympathizers. In the end, WARF and its opponents reached a truce and the most lasting effect of the 1940s would be how the rapid wartime expansion of the federal bureaucracy forced the young foundation to adapt and modernize.

Tensions between WARF and the federal government gradually emerged over a number of years. Through the 1920s and 1930s, WARF had controlled the health and safety of irradiated vitamin D by cooperating with the American Medical Association and negotiating with private companies. Federal bureaucrats became more involved in 1939 with the creation of the Federal Security Agency (FSA), a cabinet-level office that exercised more active oversight of WARF-licensed products like vitamin D-enriched milk and oatmeal. Although WARF officials viewed the new regulations as excessive, they first tried to influence rather than fight them.


Back to the top >>

Of Rats and Men: Warfarin Becomes World Famous by 1955


Karl Paul Link and Mark Stahmann posing in their laboratory sometime in the 1950s. Courtesy UW Digital Collections, Photo ID: S05108
Karl Paul Link and Mark Stahmann posing in their laboratory sometime in the 1950s. Courtesy UW Digital Collections, Photo ID: S05108
While the era of the Steenbock patents came to a close when WARF dedicated them to the public in 1946,1 Harry Steenbock remained engaged with the foundation into the 1950s, monitoring the actions of the trustees and offering them advice. Meanwhile, a younger generation of foundation management dedicated most of their energy to the newer, lucrative patents of Steenbock’s colleague, biochemistry professor Karl Paul Link.

As the Steenbock patents were winding down, Link and his lab assistants produced a series of inventions that earned the foundation millions of dollars. By the early 1950s, Link had matched Steenbock’s reputation as a scientist of international renown. And, much like irradiated vitamin D in the decades before, the testing, licensing and marketing of the Link patents put dozens of WARF employees to work.2

Although Link’s name tends to be most associated with warfarin, a drug that acts as both a blood thinner in human patients and a poison when fed to rats, he and his lab assistants held multiple patents related to three productive inventions. In scientific terms, Link’s lab isolated a chemical compound, 4-hydroxycoumarin, that prevents blood from clotting in humans and animals. Through experiments on various analogs and synthetic forms of the underlying compound, they derived dicoumarol, warfarin and warfarin sodium.


Back to the top >>

Fighting the Taxman: WARF Faces Off with the IRS in 1962


Members of the WARF board of trustees and executive office staff gather with University of Wisconsin administrators in May 1969 at the construction site for the WARF building that now stands at the corner of Walnut and Observatory. Courtesy UW Digital Collections, Photo ID: S09836.
Members of the WARF board of trustees and executive office staff gather with University of Wisconsin administrators in May 1969 at the construction site for the WARF building that now stands at the corner of Walnut and Observatory. Courtesy UW Digital Collections, Photo ID: S09836.
On November 27, 1962, the Milwaukee District Office of the Internal Revenue Service sent a letter threatening to revoke WARF's tax-exempt status. If Washington, D.C., confirmed the district's recommendation, it would mean more than a new tax bill. An adverse ruling might mark the end of WARF's existence as a philanthropic foundation.

Like any tax audit, the letter from Milwaukee came as a shock. WARF's leaders argued that the IRS had mischaracterized the purpose of the foundation's operations in much the same way the Justice Department had misunderstood the Steenbock patents in the 1940s.1 The foundation set out to prove, once and for all, that WARF's scientific mission served the interest of the public and deserved proper recognition by the federal government.

As it turned out, the IRS had targeted WARF as part of a political dynamic much larger than the foundation itself. The growth in disposable income for many Americans in the 1940s and 50s had led to bigger charitable giving, which in turn strengthened the political clout of many philanthropies.


Back to the top >>

Protecting a Legacy, Building a Profession: The Institutional Patent Agreements of 1968 and 1973


Hector DeLuca (center left) and Howard Bremer (center right) in 1990 with a group of Japanese scientists. Following the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, WARF built a strong market in Japan for a new generation of vitamin D patents.
Hector DeLuca (center left) and Howard Bremer (center right) in 1990 with a group of Japanese scientists. Following the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, WARF built a strong market in Japan for a new generation of vitamin D patents.
Sometime around 1964, Managing Director Ward Ross told WARF Patent Counsel Howard Bremer that the foundation's licensing team, including Bremer himself, might soon be out of a job. Over the prior two years, patentable inventions on campus had slowed to a trickle. If the trend continued, WARF's patenting and licensing might dry up altogether.

From that point forward, Bremer set out on a 15-year odyssey to revive WARF's licensing program. Beyond saving his job and those of his colleagues, he hoped to maintain the core mission that had defined the foundation's legacy since the days of Harry Steenbock.

By drawing on his expertise as WARF's in-house attorney, his background in corporate patent law and his degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School, Bremer soon pinpointed the problem. Prevailing government policy at the time set no de minimis on intellectual property. In layman's terms, that meant that funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation or the Atomic Energy Commission owned the patenting rights on any invention funded with as little as one penny of federal money.


Back to the top >>

A Professional Investment: WARF’s New Financial Strategy in 1983


WARF's innovative, long-term financial strategy allowed the foundation to meet immediate research needs while maintaining support for future generations of university scientists.
WARF's innovative, long-term financial strategy allowed the foundation to meet immediate research needs while maintaining support for future generations of university scientists.
Over the first 50 years of its history, WARF gained international attention for its groundbreaking inventions and lucrative patents. Meanwhile, most of the foundation's growth came not from innovative science but from financial investments as the trustees spent much of their time buying and selling stocks to grow the WARF endowment.

The first trustees, several of whom had built successful careers in banking and finance, decided early on that the foundation should construct a long-term financial strategy that would avoid exhausting their revenue on immediate research needs in favor of supporting future generations of university scientists. With that in mind, in 1930 they used royalties from the Steenbock patents to buy the foundation's first stocks and bonds.

The vice president of the board, Thomas E. Brittingham Jr., took the lead in managing those assets. In addition to his own career as an investment professional, Brittingham and his sister Margaret directed their family's trust fund. When their father died in 1924, his estate left instructions to donate much of the fortune that he had earned in the lumber industry. Together, the two siblings built a legacy of philanthropy that supported both the University of Wisconsin and the city of Madison.1


Back to the top >>

Riding the Wave of Biotechnology: The First Startup Equity Investment in 1994


A gathering of the leaders of Third Wave Technologies in 2008. From left: Lloyd Smith, Kevin Conroy (Lance Fors’ successor as CEO), Dave Thompson (chairman of the Third Wave board), John Neis (director of Venture Investors and a Third Wave board member), Jim Dahlberg.
A gathering of the leaders of Third Wave Technologies in 2008. From left: Lloyd Smith, Kevin Conroy (Lance Fors’ successor as CEO), Dave Thompson (chairman of the Third Wave board), John Neis (director of Venture Investors and a Third Wave board member), Jim Dahlberg.
In 1993, Dick Leazer overheard a heated conversation outside his office in the WARF building. Two members of the foundation's licensing team were locked in a debate over how to handle a request from two UW–Madison professors. Instead of licensing their WARF patents to an established firm, Lloyd Smith and James Dahlberg wanted the technology for a new company they had started themselves.

Leazer had just arrived at WARF, where he would take over as managing director the following September. But after listening to the hallway exchange, he seized the initiative and set up a meeting with Smith and Dahlberg. That decision began a reorientation of WARF's interactions with Madison startup companies, which in turn opened a new chapter in the foundation's decadeslong effort to adapt to changing times.

In his prior career leading pharmaceutical and medical device companies, Leazer had sought out creative partnerships and business solutions. This made him a natural fit for the competitive technology transfer environment of the 1990s. Even before he took over as managing director, he began attending faculty meetings and reaching out to Wisconsin businesses looking to spark new collaborations.


Back to the top >>

Partners in Discovery: The Construction of the Discovery Building in 2010


The Discovery Building, completed in 2010.
The Discovery Building, completed in 2010.
No place on campus encapsulates WARF’s history over the last decade quite like the Discovery Building. Occupying a full city block on University Avenue, Discovery houses three complementary entities: the private, nonprofit Morgridge Institute for Research, supported by WARF; the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID), managed by the university; and a community space called the Town Center, run by WARF.1

Situated at a crossroads of academic disciplines, private resources and public engagement, Discovery aims to break new ground in human health. But the edifice itself serves as a metaphor for WARF's long influence on the built environment of the UW–Madison campus.The physical spaces that the foundation occupied and helped create have been woven into the fabric of the university over the last nine decades.