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November 29, 1965


JAMA. 1965;194(9):1006. doi:10.1001/jama.1965.03090220062018

Disputes about priority, usually sordid, occur with distressing frequency throughout the history of science. A classic example relates to the discovery of surgical anesthesia, a subject which still, unaccountably, attracts a few vociferous propagandists. And this despite Osler's dictum, which should have stilled that controversy: "... in science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs."1 This pragmatic and sensible opinion is relevant to most discussions about priority.

Nevertheless, it is not surprising that disputes arise. Society favors modesty over its antithesis, yet originality—with its concrete representation in the form of priority—is a prized attribute of the investigator. Merton2 discusses this ambivalence of scientists toward priority; as he points out, to insist on one's originality by claiming priority is not humble, and to humbly dismiss one's priority by ignoring it does not affirm the value of originality.