Google (who else?) have just launched the beta version of Patent Search. The database currently contains all approx. 7 million US patents from 1790s to mid-2006 — and will be continuously updated and expanded to cover a number of non-US patent offices as well. Read more about it here.
Needless to say this is a potentially wonderful online tool for historians of medicine. True, 1) certainly not all medical history has to do with technology, 2) there is more to the history of medical technology than gadgets and technical procedures, 3) not all medical technologies have been patented, and 4) not all them have been issued by the US patent authorities. But that said, much can be done with this kind of online material.
For example, if you are interested in in vitro fertilisation, try to search for “IVF”, and you get 657 hits. And guess which patent this is:
The present invention is directed to a process for amplifying and detecting any target nucleic acid sequence contained in a nucleic acid or mixture thereof. The process comprises treating separate complementary strands of the nucleic acid with a molar excess of two oligonucleotide primers, extending the primers to form complementary primer extension products which act as templates for synthesizing the desired nucleic acid sequence, and detecting the sequence so amplified. The steps of the reaction may be carried out stepwise or simultaneously and can be repeated as often as desired.
Right! It’s Kary B. Mullis et al. patent for PCR, the method which made the Human Genome Project and, subsequently, postgenomics possible. The patent was filed 7 February 1986 and issued a year and half later, 28 July 1987.
Added 19 December: As Ian Ellis points out on H-SCI-MED-TECH today, the OCR-technique that Google uses for Patent Search isn’t foolproof — there are some occasional reading errors, but nevertheless, it’s “a vast improvement on the old search methods”.