Kara W. Swanson
Professor of Law and Affiliate Professor of History
University of California, Berkeley, MA 1988
University of California, Berkeley, JD 1992
Harvard University, PhD 2009
Professor Swanson is an accomplished scholar, legal practitioner, and scientist whose chief interests are in intellectual property law, property, gender and sexuality, race and racism, the history of science, medicine, and technology, and legal history. In 2021, she was selected for the Law & Society Association’s John Hope Franklin Prize, which recognizes exceptional scholarship in the field of race, racism and the law, for her essay, “Race and Selective Legal Memory: Reflections on ‘Invention of a Slave’.” Professor Swanson received one of Northeastern’s most prestigious prizes in 2015, the Robert D. Klein University Lectureship, which is awarded to a member of the faculty across the university who has obtained distinction in his or her field of study. Professor Swanson was awarded the 2018 History of Science Society’s Margaret W. Rossiter History of Women in Science Prize in recognition of her article, “Rubbing Elbows and Blowing Smoke: Gender, Class and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Patent Office,” published in ISIS: A Journal of the History of Science Society. In 2022, her article “Inventing the Woman Voter: Suffrage, Ability, and Patents,” published in Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, received the Martha Trescott Prize from the Society of the History of Technology.
Professor Swanson's research has been supported by the Mellon Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, among other funding organizations. Professor Swanson’s scholarship has earned multiple awards, including honors from the Society for the History of Technology, the Association of American Law Schools, and the Iowa Historical Society. Her current book project investigates the relationship between the patent system and American nationhood and citizenship by examining the ways in which women and African Americans, in support of their movements for full political and social equality, sought to demonstrate their inventive capacities.
Before coming to Northeastern, Professor Swanson was the Berger-Howe Fellow in Legal History at Harvard Law School and associate professor at Drexel University School of Law, and has been a visiting professor at Boston University School of Law. In 2024, she will be the Don Trow Visiting Fellow, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. In addition to her numerous publications in law reviews and peer-reviewed journals, Professor Swanson published a book on property in the human body in 2014, in which she uses the history of law and medicine to explore contemporary debates in the use of body parts. The book, Banking on the Body: The Market in Blood, Milk and Sperm in Modern America, was published by Harvard University Press. She was selected as the 2020 Arthur Molella Distinguished Fellow by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Museum of American History to support her project, “Inventing Citizens: Race, Gender, and Patents.” In 2023-24, she will continue her research on this planned book with fellowships at the Linda Hall Library and the Science History Institute, and spend the year in residence as a member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.
Trained as a biochemist and molecular biologist at Yale University and the University of California at Berkeley, Professor Swanson earned her PhD in the history of science from Harvard University in 2009. Before entering law school, she was a published research scientist. After graduating from law school, she served as an associate at Dechert, where she maintained an intellectual property law practice and was involved in drafting and negotiating technology licenses, advising biotech and computer services and software start-ups on protection of their inventions and drafting and prosecuting patents as a registered patent attorney. She clerked for the Hon. Cecil F. Poole of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals and Judge William H. Orrick Jr., of the US District Court for the Northern District of California. From 2021-23, she served as associate dean for research and interdisciplinary education at the School of Law.
Fields of Expertise
- Copyright Law
- History of Science
- Intellectual Property
- Legal History
- Medicine and Technology
- Patent Law
- “Beyond the Progress of the Useful Arts: The Inventor as Useful Citizen,” 60 Houston Law Review 363 (2022).
- “The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921: A Lesson in the Law of Trespass,” 45 Connecticut Law Review 1005 (2022).
- “Centering Black Women Inventors: Passing and the Patent Archive,” 25 Stanford Technology Law Review 305 (2022).
“Making Patents: Patent Administration, 1790-1860,” 71 Case Western Reserve Law Review 777 (2020).
- “Inventing the Woman Voter: Suffrage, Ability, and Patents,” 19 Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 559 (2020).
- “Race and Selective Legal Memory: Reflections on “Invention of a Slave”,” 120 Columbia Law Review 1077 (2020).
- "'Great Men,' Law, and the Social Construction of Technology," Law & Social Inquiry (2018).
- “Rubbing Elbows and Blowing Smoke: Gender, Class and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Patent Office,” 108 Isis: A Journal of the History of Science 40 (2017).
- “Rethinking Body Property,” 44 Florida State University Law Review 193 (2016).
- “The Doctor’s Dilemma: Paternalisms in the Medicolegal History of Assisted Reproduction and Abortion,” 43 Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 312 (2015).
- “Intellectual Property and Gender: Reflections on Accomplishments and Methodology,” 24 American UniversityJournal of Gender, Social Policy and the Law (2015).
- “The End of Men, Again,” 93 Boston University Law Review Annex 26 (2013).
- “Intellectual Property and Public Health – A White Paper,” 7 Akron Intellectual Property Journal (2014) (co-author).
- “Adultery by Doctor: Artificial Insemination,1890-1945,” 87 Chicago-Kent Law Review 591 (2012).
- “The Birth of the Sperm Bank,” 71 The Annals of Iowa 241 (2012).
- “Getting a Grip on the Corset: Gender, Sexuality and Patent Law,” 23 Yale Journal of Law & Feminism 57 (2011).
- “Food and Drug Law as Intellectual Property Law: Historical Reflections,” 2011 Wisconsin Law Review 331 (2011)
- “Review of Working Knowledge: Employee Innovation and the Rise of Intellectual Property, 1800-1830,” 1 IP Law Book Review 1 (2010).
- “The Emergence of the Professional Patent Practitioner,” 50 Technology and Culture 519 (2009).
- “Human Milk as Technology and Technologies of Human Milk: Medical Imaginings in the Early 20th Century United States,” 37 Women's Studies Quarterly 21 (2009).
- “Biotech in Court: A Legal Lesson on the Unity of Science,” 37 Social Studies of Science 357 (2007).
- “They Knew It All Along: Patents, Social Justice, and Fights for Civil Rights,” in Intellectual Property – Social Justice Handbook, eds. L. Mtima and S. Jamar (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).
- “Patents, Politics and Abortion,” in Intellectual Property Law in Context: Law and Society Perspectives on IP, eds. W.T. Gallagher et al. (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).
- “The Corset,” in A History of Intellectual Property in 50 Objects, eds. D. Hunter and C. Op den Camp (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
- “Authoring an Invention: Patent Production in the Nineteenth-Century United States,” in Making and Unmaking Intellectual Property: Creative Production in Legal and Cultural Perspective, eds. M. Biagioli et al. (University of Chicago Press, 2011).
- “Spain Touts Highest Female Inventors Rate, Us Trails Behind,” Law360 (March 22, 2023).
- “Professor Kara W. Swanson Awarded SHOT’s Martha Trescott Prize,” Northeastern Law News Announcement (November 4, 2022).
- “She Pioneered the Sale of Breast Milk, Then Lost Everything,” The Washington Post (May 13, 2022).
- “A Bronx Tale: One Sperm Donor, 19 Siblings, and Six Decades of Secrets,” Mother Jones (June 10, 2021).
- “Sperm Banks,” NPR's Planet Money (November 15, 2019).
- “‘Everybody wants it’: The Thriving Breast Milk Market,” The Boston Globe (August 8, 2019).
- “Cat Ladies, Quilters and Creativity,” Landslide (March 27, 2018).
- “Professor Kara Swanson Explores How Suffragists and Civil Rights Activists Used the Patent System as a Political Resource,” The Iowa Innovation, Business & Law Center (December 1, 2017).
- ““Organ Marketplaces” of the Future," Innovation Hub (June 18, 2015).
- “Egg-Freezing Shindigs Aren’t Like Tupperware Parties,” Slate.com (November 18, 2014).
- “Banks of Blood and Sperm,” The Atlantic (July 31, 2014).
- “The Trouble with Organ Banking,” The Boston Globe (June 1, 2014).
- “3Qs: Banking on the Body,” news@Northeastern (May 9, 2014).
- “The Surprisingly Engrossing History of Patent Examiners,” Slate.com (May 7, 2014).
- “Kara Swanson on blood banks, commodification, and "de-propertization,” K. Nelson, history + law +tech ... in propia persona (November 18, 2012).
- “Kara Swanson: Feminism, Corsets and IP,” Written Description (May 5, 2011).