Continuing our occasional series looking at medical devices from a historical perspective, we here provide a foundational resource for those looking into medical device business history.
Building on our earlier preliminary historical research concerning the publics of medical devices, we are here sharing a way to visualise some of the most important businesses for the medical device marketplace in the UK and Ireland since roughly 1970. This resource is not straightforward, so do not let it mislead you. Further details concerning how to read it can be found below. It is intended to give those who are interested in the world of late C20th medical devices something to picture, to think through, and to interrogate, concerning a topic which they would otherwise be left to research entirely unaided. The topic is: what kinds of companies contributed to the medical device marketplace? Who owned them? Where did they operate?
The static images included in this post are intended merely to draw your eye. In reality, the map is only useful in its interactive form, which can be found here:
If you would like a copy of the spreadsheet which this is all based on, please email Dominic Berry on email@example.com
Each geographic point can be clicked, revealing whatever immediately relevant information we could find about the company’s area of specialism, history of acquisition, links to any web pages (active or inactive), and current ownership. The map details 677 of the ‘most significant’ companies which operated in the self-defined space of ‘medical devices’. By this we mean that the phrase ‘medical device’ was one they would recognise and either adopted themselves, or which was used in reference to them. As we have emphasised in earlier posts, things would look quite different if we were making case studies of some particular medical devices (i.e. hearing aids or pacemakers), because the category of thing – ‘medical device’ – may or may not have mattered for such individual technologies. The 677 companies have 922 locations associated with them. The specificity of the locations pinpointed depended upon how much of each address we could find. If a postcode was available, the map points to it (according to google maps). If only a town or city name was given, the map points to some sensible part of that town or city. A reader can learn how granular the address for each location was in the spreadsheet.
What does ‘most significant’ mean?
This list of companies was produced by three different means. The first and easiest to explain, is the use of the Wayback Machine to find resources produced by the main UK and Irish medical technology trades associations, who have often listed their members. Lists were found at points between 2003 and 2021 on the past and present websites of the Irish Medtech Association and ABHI all of which are included here, provided the company had at least one registered location somewhere in the UK or Ireland. We also excluded banks, as they are not particularly indicative of the medical marketplace over and above any other marketplace. Law firms and consultancies who specifically marketed themselves to medical device developers were retained.
The second collection came from using the web resource Factiva. This database was introduced to our project by Stuart Hogarth, and we are very grateful for the suggestion! While it does contain some runs of newspapers in the 1960s and 70s, the database is heavily weighted toward electronic news sources from the 1990s onward. If you search for a particular phrase, such as medical device, Factiva will produce a colossal list of news items which featured it. In this case it produced results between 1989 and 2021. Factiva will also automatically produce a list of any companies occurring inside those news items. Obviously Factiva’s notion of a company extends well beyond just medical device companies. So we have filtered out any that had no explicit interest in medical devices. We only completed this filtering step for any company that appeared in the medical device search more than 15 times. This left behind a pool of 830 potential companies which featured 15 times or fewer. It is not possible to estimate how many of these companies have something directly to do with medical devices. The ambition in this mapping exercise is to capture the most significant companies, not to be exhaustive.
The third and final source was the British Newspaper Archive which Kevin Matthew Jones has been analysing by hand. One of the points of information which Kevin has been collecting by looking at news items which feature ‘medical devices’, are the names of any companies mentioned. Once again, these have been filtered to only those directly concerning medical devices, which yielded around 70 more companies. Because the BNA is quite robust for the period 1960s-70s, it forms our primary resource for companies operating in that period. Obviously though, this entire exercise has results weighted much more to the present, the dangers of which we are keeping in mind (thanks to Michael Hopkins for talking to us about the kinds of problems we might face, making historical sense out of this data). The list of companies included in this map can of course be supplemented by future archival findings.
Why ghost map?
Because any given piece of information on this map will be True, for a period of time, but the collection of information which one can see at a given point would likely cease to be true if it was all mushed together. Instead, there was (or is) a time, and/or a way, in which any given piece of information will have been (or might still be) true, but further work would be needed by the reader, to reconstruct what that truth is.
What does that mean?
If you look at a point on this map, and see its location, company name, place of ownership, and year of foundation, each one of those pieces of information might be true, but only for a given period of time, and not necessarily in combination with the other pieces of information, which will themselves only be true for a given period of time. The locations might have changed over time, the company name may have changed, who owns it and, therefore, place of ownership may have changed, year of foundation might not be expected to ‘change’, but there is always a chance that we missed a company’s origins as actually emerging from a still earlier company, or from the merger of earlier companies. And, of course, the fact that there is a point on this map does not mean that the company in question still exists in any form. Nor does a founding date mean that the company definitely operated in the UK and Ireland from that point. Many of these companies were founded first elsewhere and only later brought to the UK and Ireland. A reader who wanted to know when each of these locations was active would need to go and learn that for themselves. Ultimately this means that any and all of these points of information might only be ghosts. Someone with historical interests who looks at this map will see lots of threads to follow. I will be doing that very selectively, but I am sharing this resource for anyone else interested in medical device thread-following. It might even inspire your interest!
How does this help Everyday Cyborgs 2.0?
The implantable devices that particularly motivate and provoke the questions of our project, did not snap into existence one bright morning. Those who imagined them were influenced by existing technologies, existing medical procedures, were trained to understand medical devices through existing institutions, and will often have used long-established components even if assembled in new ways. Implantable, ‘smart‘, and imagined future medical devices have come through routes including RFID chipped breast implants, wearable defibrillators, intraocular lenses, steel hands, pacemakers, automated insulin pumps, amongst a vast array of other ways in which the body can be monitored, tested, made hospitable to foreign objects, replaced, ‘rejuvenated’ or otherwise brought into dialogue with technology and engineering. The relations between bodies and technologies, or patients and users, are undergoing continual change or renegotiation, which can cause dissonances and divergences between these parties. One of the most important venues for that change and renegotiation is the law, and as such we are giving this site particularly close attention. Knowing that laws, people, technologies, might not always be well-aligned, helps us to resist the otherwise alluring interpretation, that the law is permanently in a position of needing to catch up with science and engineering. None outpaces the other. Each simply contributes to change and renegotiation in different ways, and the vastly more important questions concern what kinds of medical devices we want, what kind of medical device industry we want, and who these should serve?
I know of a company you have missed!
Great! And if you have read this far into the post, there is also a chance that you would like to help continue adding to this map. For this purpose we have put together a form which you can fill in.
It lists the essential basic information that is needed for an entry to be included, and we would greatly appreciate your help! The form also attempts a clear, though broad, definition of what kinds of companies might count as part of the medical device marketplace. We write:
Defining medical device companies is of course very hard. While we are trying to keep pharmaceutical companies distinct (unless they also pursued device development, which would include the development of drug delivery devices), we are nevertheless being deliberately broad, to cover everything from instrument makers, to instrument hygiene services, to companies offering precision engineering for medical devices, to medical technology companies, and even law firms or consultancies which explicitly marketed themselves to medical device manufacturers. The idea behind this breadth, is to appreciate the range of economic and industrial activity which the manufacture of medical devices is implicated in or dependent on.
That’s all for now, future historical posts will consider the universities which have featured most prominently in key journals for biomedical and biological engineering, a timeline of the governance changes concerning medical devices in the UK and Ireland, amongst other things!
Written by: Dominic J. Berry.
Funding: Work on this was generously supported by a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award in Humanities and Social Sciences 2019-2024 (Grant No: 212507/Z/18/Z).