Happy Birthday, Senator Birch Bayh

“What I admire most about Senator Bayh isn’t his legislative victories—it’s his character.”

Senator Birch Bayh (right) with staffer Joe Allen (left) circa 1980.

Senator Birch Bayh (right) with staffer Joe Allen (left) circa 1980 during the Bayh-Dole hearings.

Hopefully, you’ve been fortunate enough—at least once in your life—to work for someone you really admired. That happened to me as a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer for Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN), who gave me the opportunity that changed my life. He turns 91 today.

I started at the bottom and gradually worked my way up the staffing ladder. But regardless of what rung one occupied, everyone in Senator Bayh’s office was treated with dignity and respect. That doesn’t happen in every Congressional office. In exchange, we were expected to produce. I learned the ropes and eventually wound up staffing what was to become the Bayh-Dole Act.

A Turning Point for Patents

Bayh-Dole not only cut through the bureaucratic red tape strangling the development of federally-funded R&D; it marked a turning point in how patents were viewed in Congress. When I first joined the Committee, patents were considered tools for big business to stifle competition. Intellectual property fell under the jurisdiction of the Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopolies. The Senate Small Business Committee was a hot bed of anti-patent sentiment.

Senator Bayh saw patents as a critical shield for the little guy taking on dominant companies. The combination of Senators Birch Bayh and Bob Dole (R-KS) representing both ends of the political spectrum was magical. After a lot of hard work—and a lot of opposition—we were able to turn around the anti-patent feelings by demonstrating that, without a strong intellectual property system, the American taxpayer would never receive the full benefits from the billions of dollars invested annually in federally-funded R&D.

Eventually, The Economist Technology Quarterly dubbed the Bayh-Dole Act: “Possibly the most inspired piece of legislation to be enacted in America over the past half century… More than anything, this single piece of legislation helped to reverse America’s precipitous slide into industrial irrelevance.”

AUTM created a special birthday card for Senator Bayh. Here’s part of what it says:

Here is what you created: By allowing thousands of non-profits, including universities, and small companies to own their federally funded inventions, the Bayh-Dole act has promoted life-altering innovations and launched entire new industries such as biotechnology.

In so many ways—from better apples to Google, from improved vaccinations and cancer treatments to helping premature babies breathe—Bayh-Dole has helped make the world a better place.

On behalf of people everywhere, thank you, Senator Bayh!


  • Up to $1.3 trillion contributed to U.S. gross industrial output
  • Up to $590 billion contributed to U.S. gross domestic product
  • Up to 4 million jobs supported
  • More than 80,000 U.S. patents issued
  • More than 11,000 start-ups formed
  • On average, two products commercialized and two companies formed every day of the year
  • More than 200 drugs and vaccines developed through public-private partnerships
  • The U. S. is a world leader in every field of technology

Passing Bayh-Dole was hardly the only IP achievement of Senator Bayh’s career. He introduced bills for patent re-examination, patent term restoration, and used his oversight authority to press for more funding for the Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). He even introduced legislation to make the USPTO an independent entity to increase its stature.

In Congress, there are work horses and show horses. As an Indiana farm boy, Senator Bayh knew the difference. He got things done, including authoring two amendments to the Constitution: the 25th Amendment on Presidential and Vice-Presidential succession; and the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18 (at a time when 18-years-olds were fighting in Vietnam but unable to vote at home). He also wrote Title IX, prohibiting discrimination based on gender.

It Comes Down to Character

But what I admire most about Senator Bayh isn’t his legislative victories—it’s his character. Early in his Senate career Senator Bayh, his wife, and Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) were flying to a campaign event in a small plane. The pilot lost his bearings in a driving storm and crashed into the side of a mountain. When the chaos ceased, Senator Bayh looked around and saw that the pilot was dead. He and his wife were miraculously unharmed, and they fought their way out of the wreckage. They smelled aviation fuel all around them and knew that at any moment the plane could explode.

Bayh moved his wife far away from the plane and turned around. When she asked what he was doing, he replied: “Ted’s still in that plane. I’ve got to go back for him.” He found Kennedy moaning in the back seat, unable to move. Somehow Bayh pulled him from the wreckage even though Senator Kennedy had broken his back. Bayh carried him down the mountain until they were rescued.

Many Members of Congress are very condescending to their staffers. I’ll never forget being with Senator Bayh when he was delivering a major speech to a trade association. I was sitting off in the corner, keeping a low profile. Suddenly I heard him say: “And if you have any questions or comments about what we’re doing to encourage innovation, get in touch with my staffer, Joe Allen. He’s doing a great job. Stand up Joe so they can see you.”  I was surprised because that certainly wasn’t in the speech I’d written for him.

My father died while Senator Bayh was in the midst of a very tough re-election campaign, running from event to event. But he took the time to call me up to his office to make sure I was okay and asked if there was anything he could do to help my family.

I was always proud that I worked for Senator Birch Bayh. He changed my life and set an example, which I’ve tried to uphold. So, Happy Birthday, Senator Bayh. Because of you, the world’s a better—and more innovative—place!


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Join the Discussion

3 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for cw]
    March 15, 2019 10:05 am

    @Eric B. , P. Buchanan wrote an illustrative article recently: http://www.unz.com/pbuchanan/how-middle-america-is-to-be-dispossessed/

    also recall these quotes:

    “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a Democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.” – John Adams

    “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51 percent of the people may take away the rights of the other 49.” – Thomas Jefferson

    “democracies … have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” – James Madison

    We’re on the slippery slope, one signal is the coordinated push for censorship of several platforms, the simultaneity of it strongly suggests an organized, monied effort.

  • [Avatar for Eric Berend]
    Eric Berend
    January 23, 2019 02:39 pm

    Would that the U.S. Congress had such champions for innovation-protecting patents on both sides of the aisle, today.

    Alas, the present fiddling while the Republic burns down, is all too reminiscent of the Fall of Rome.

  • [Avatar for John White]
    John White
    January 23, 2019 01:34 pm

    Terrific article about terrific fellow. A hearty happy birthday from here. I had the good fortune to meet and speak with Senator Bayh on the occasion of the celebration of the Bayh/Dole act passage a few years ago. Very engaging and candid.