Caroline Lieffers
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Itinerant manipulators and public benefactors
Artificial limb patents, medical professionalism and the moral economy in ante
in Rethinking modern prostheses in Anglo-American commodity cultures, 1820–1939
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In 1847 the American Medical Association introduced its Code of Ethics, which deemed it ‘derogatory to professional character … for a physician to hold a patent for any surgical instrument, or medicine’. This chapter examines how the American patent system and the AMA’s ethics influenced B.F. Palmer, who in 1846 received the first patent for an artificial limb in the United States. While Palmer’s extra-medical position helped him avoid ethical controversy, the patent system also reinforced his aspirations to professional stature as a ‘surgeon-artist’. In arguing for a patent extension in 1860, Palmer and his attorney framed the patent as a kind of social contract, asserting the surgeon-artist’s exclusive, expert, and philanthropic character and depicting a benevolent professionalism in close parallel with that of the AMA. Palmer appealed to the moral economies of patenting and medicine alike, yet his argument also cast the sentimental work of resolving impairment in the hard fiscal terms legible to the Commissioner of Patents. The surgeon-artist’s professionalism depended on an ethic of beneficent contribution to the public good, underwritten by the authority of medicine, protected by the patent, and measured against the costs of charity.

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