… physicians are as far from being agreed as to what is the yellow fever, as what is it’s cure. if the disease which you have so successfully treated [is] … the yellow fever, and your remedy so certain, I shoud imagine some of the great cities in which it has prevailed & is still prevailing, would be the best scene for exhibiting proofs of your discovery … [and] would in all probability produce satisfactory recompence … I do not think an application to Congress could be useful, because they have already as far as their constitutional powers go, done what they thought best for securing to inventors the benefits of their inventions.
Thomas Jefferson to John Allen, October 25, 1802
In the face of coronavirus, I’m excerpting correspondence about diseases that ravaged the nation in Thomas Jefferson’s time.
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Some leaders respect the role of private enterprise.
John Allen, a English physician practicing in Maine, claimed he had cured nearly 60 people of the yellow fever. He asked the President’s advice about how to roll out his discovery. Should he take it to a medical society, to a warmer climate for more research or to Congress? (There was a hint in Allen’s letter that he might be looking for financial gain.)
The President cast a little doubt on Allen’s claims but declined involvement, citing the press of his official duties. Wanting to be helpful, he suggested trying it out in “some of the great cities” still afflicted, those along the Atlantic coast.
Congress, limited by the Constitution, could be of no help beyond what they’d already done, allowing “inventors the benefits of their inventions.”