Epidemics and the issue of private knowledge

News revealed that there was a point during the spread of Covid-19 in Italy when there were not enough respirator valves for all the patients that required treatment. When the original manufacturer could not supply extra valves, volunteers developed improvised solutions. Cristian Fracassi and Alessandro Ramaioli made use of 3D printers to create a version of the medical device. According to a report by The Verge, they initially got in touch with the manufacturer to request the blueprints but were refused, being told that the file was the company’s private property. Without the blueprints, Fracassi and Ramaioli had to reverse-engineer the device in order to print unauthorized copies of the patented valve. After successful tests, they donated 100 of these 3D-printed valves to the hospital. Speculation about a possible lawsuit for infringement of the patent caused online outrage, raising the question of how we deal with proprietary knowledge in case of emergency such as the current pandemic.

Keeping potentially life-saving knowledge in “private” seems to be a very contemporary issue. Having patents on crucial medication or equipment is now the “norm” of the medical and pharmaceutical industry. In academic circles, efforts to make science more open must face the ever-present question of profit, as well as the assurance of status and influence within knowledge communities. It is such a present concern, but while reading about the 3D-printed valves and the issue of bypassing patents, I could not help but remember one of the healing practitioners I came across in my work on privacy and health in early modern Dresden.

This practitioner was the Leipzig physician Caspar Kegler (c. 1461-1537). I had encountered Kegler’s name in many of the manuscript pharmacopoeias I have been collecting to understand early modern medical networks. His name always appeared in plague remedies, showing that he had a surprising level of specialization for an early-16th-century doctor. However, it was only through the work of Erik A. Heinrichs that I was able to really understand the impact of Kegler’s recipes in the circulation of medical knowledge in the 16th and 17th century.

After becoming a doctor in 1511, Kegler established himself as a remedy maker, producing and selling his medicines at his shop at the Leipzig City Hall. This activity was usually exclusive to apothecaries, so a physician taking over this market was not common at the time. He advertised his remedies in cheap prints like pamphlets and booklets, a new endeavor in the Leipzig print market. He took the chance to seek printers to spread his “plague regimens” after Duke Georg I of Saxony enforced a ban on Luther’s works in 1521. Printers were in need of new “popular” texts to disseminate after the reader-grabbing Lutheran texts were banned. By using the more accessible forms of print, Kegler was able to spread healing knowledge to the literate laypeople, gaining popularity thanks to the accessible tone of his medical treatises and pamphlets.

Kegler, Caspar: Eyn Nutzlichs vnd trostlichs Regiment wider dy Pestilentz; Leipzig [1529]. A digitized version can be found on the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek online catalog

Kegler also counted on the endorsement of local authorities. He stressed in his prints how the Leipzig city council requested his regimens to be published as a way to help the population in the face of a series of epidemics in the early 16th century. In the 1529 version, he proclaims that Duke Georg I himself urged him to divulge his medicines. Kegler was trusted to give medical advice to the masses, providing health regimens as well as spiritual guidance. On top of that, he offered new medicines for the plague.

Opening of the 1529 Leipzig edition

Epidemics tend to push the boundaries of medical knowledge, making people desperate for new solutions. Kegler’s new medicines incorporated learned alchemy and artisanal techniques. In the hands-on space of the laboratory, Kegler was able to refine his recipe for aqua vitae, a potent distillate which was particularly popular in times of plague. His medicines relied on experimentation to prove their efficacy, instead of the traditional reliance on the authority of ancient-Greek methods. This rhetoric worked well with its intended audience since Kegler continued to highlight the experimental aspect of his concoctions in all subsequent prints. Alchemical/experimental medicine was about to take over the medical discourse of 16th-century Germany.

Manuscript with Kegler’s advice on the use of Aqua Vitae (Ludwig VI. von der Pfalz Rezeptsammlung – Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 192; 1570–1572 [Nachträge bis nach 1579], 198r)

Kegler’s resourcefulness and innovative use of new technologies could be seen as similar to the efforts of the 3D-print specialists using their machinery to develop the missing pieces to save lives today. However, we cannot neglect the fact that Kegler’s whole enterprise relied heavily on secrecy.

His pamphlets contained several recipes for plague remedies. These recipes became so popular that they were copied into manuscript pharmacopoeias, surviving in several German archives. However, his most potent and famous medicines were kept as a family secret. When asked to reveal how to prepare his famous “plague electuary”, Kegler instead explained that the complex process required specialized equipment and unique ingredients (including unicorn horn), being too hard to replicate without first-hand supervision. However, there is no definitive evidence that the recipe was ever revealed even to skilled specialists outside of the Kegler family. Secrecy was Kegler’s way of maintaining ownership of his recipe, making “Doctor Caspar Kegler’s Electuary” a branded and recognizable remedy in the following decades. After Kegler’s death, his family continued to advertise his remedies, issuing reprints of his pamphlets as well. His sons continued the secrecy trope, saying that only Kegler’s children had the correct original formula.

Manuscript copy of Kegler’s Plague Regimen (Rezeptsammlung – Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 204; 4. Viertel 16. Jh., 190v)

This healing knowledge was seen as private property of the Kegler family, and they made use of their political influence in order to keep it this way. In Dresden, Caspar Kegler the grandson gained the favor of Elector Christian II. Christian II praised Kegler’s electuary, proclaiming that only Dr Caspar Kegler’s descendants had the correct recipe, while also giving Caspar Kegler the grandson sole privilege to print his grandfather’s work. To this day, although there are recipes that claim to be Kegler’s unicorn electuary, it is impossible to verify if they are accurate since the original has never been revealed. The strict secrecy of the Kegler family and the supporting privileges received from their political patrons turned “Dr Caspar Kegler’s Electuary” into forgotten knowledge.

Pharmacopoeia claiming to have the recipe of Kegler’s Electuary (Arzneibuch – SLUB Mscr.Dresd.App.2975, 1550-1586, 5v)

On the other hand, Kegler’s open recipes being copied and adapted in subsequent manuscripts show us that knowledge grows as it is shared. I think the past has a lot to reveal about the question of proprietary knowledge. By looking at how societies dealt with knowledge being “private property”, we can inform the decisions we make today. Who benefited from private knowledge in the past? What were the consequences of private knowledge to those societies? How tragedies and emergencies affected how knowledge was treated? Posing these questions to the past can illuminate the paths we are taking for the future marked by the pandemic. Kegler and other examples from history show us that humans are resourceful, and even the hardest of times can be the grounds for important discoveries. It is up to us to not let our knowledge be forgotten.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.