Frank Etscorn Presents Talk On Inventing the Nicotine Patch

October 26, 2018

Inventor discusses the history of tobacco and the process of discovery at open seminar

Frank Etscorn speaking at whiteboard
Dr. Frank Etscorn 

SOCORRO, N.M. – Dr. Frank Etscorn, inventor of the nicotine patch, spoke about the history of tobacco and his experiences inventing the nicotine patch during a Mechanical Engineering Department seminar on Thursday, Oct. 25. 

Etscorn joined the faculty at New Mexico Tech in 1977 in the Psychology Department. By the early 1980s, he was ready to file a patent on his invention. After years of legal wrangling, Etscorn and New Mexico Tech defeated a challenge on the patent from other scientists and the U.S. patent was awarded in 1986. The invention made millions for the university and for Etscorn. Etscorn retired from NMT in the 1990s, and returned to campus a few years ago to teach his most popular course, “Drugs and Behavior.”

He began his talk with a brief history of tobacco. From the time of Christopher Columbus up to World War II, tobacco has played an important part in American history. During the Civil War, Gen. George Washington requested funding from Washington, D.C., but requested tobacco if no money was available. In World War I, Gen. Pershing made a similar request – “Send bullets, but if you can’t do that, send tobacco.”

Sigmund Freud had a heavy cigar habit that eventually led to his death. Etscorn told of other times in history that rulers enacted fatal consequences to soldiers caught using tobacco. The main thrust of his talk: Tobacco is a dangerous and lethal drug.

Etscorn put the lethal aspect of tobacco into modern terms. He said there were more than 78,000 opioid deaths in the U.S. last year and more than 100,000 alcohol-related fatalities. Tobacco, however, caused more than 480,000 deaths last year.

Amidst the sobering anecdotes and statistics, Etscorn peppered his talk with humor, particularly a running joke about how he wasn’t allowed to do his experiments on freshmen. He also talked about his own life experiences.

Born in Kentucky, Etscorn grew up around tobacco – in the family and on the farms. He worked in the tobacco warehouse but could never figure out why people enjoyed smoking. Early 'experiments' with smoking just made him sick.

His quest had an accidental breakthrough. Etscorn’s research focus was flavor aversion. He researched how novel, harmless flavors become associated with nausea and the flavor is thereafter avoided. He was fooling around with liquid nicotine (a potent stimulant of the vomiting center) when he accidentally spilled some on his arm. Within a few minutes, he was dizzy, nauseated and unable to stand. Ever the consummate researcher, Etscorn proceeded to reproduce the experiment on himself. Before long, he was publishing his results.

Originally known as the Habitrol patch, the patented invention was marketed by Ciba-Geigy Pharmaceuticals (now Novartis). The invention provided a steady stream of revenue for more than 17 years. He credited patent attorney Deborah Peacock, who is now serving her second term on the NMT Board of Regents, with fighting tooth and nail to make sure Tech received the patent above all other challengers.

In summary, he encouraged students to pursue a career that they enjoy. He said, "You got to love what you do ... and then it's not work."

– NMT –