February 9, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
William Upjohn

In the late 1880s pills prescribed by doctors were so hard a hammer couldn't crack their protective shells. Such pills not only did not dissolve in the stomach but were often passed by the patient without any medicinal benefit whatsoever.

In 1885 32-year old Dr. William Erastus Upjohn patented a tedious process which would revolutionize the drug industry. Dr. Upjohn's new "friable" pill crumpled under the pressure of a thumb. The patent didn't reveal Upjohn's process which remained secret for decades.

Upjohn, a graduate of the University of Michigan, had been practicing medicine in rural Hastings, Michigan for a decade when he introduced his friable pill.
In 1886 he formed the Upjohn Pill and Granule Company in Kalamazoo with his brother Henry. Henry died a year later of typhoid fever but two other brothers, Frederick Lawrence and James Townley, soon joined the business.

Upjohn's first price list featured 186 pill formulas. He was a tireless promoter of his products. He developed the graphic image of a thumb crushing a pill, which became a widely-recognized trademark. He appeared at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair handing out souvenirs at his exhibit in front of an enormous bottle filled with colored pills. By 1900 Upjohn was selling 2000 items.

By that time medicine in tablet form, even more digestible than Upjohn's pills, began to appear. Upjohn formed a Tablet Department and sought a new company star to replace the friable pill. Company chemists developed a tasteless laxative they called "Phenolax." W.E. Upjohn suggested Phenolax would work better as a flavored tablet and in 1908 the pink, mint-flavored laxative hit the market. By 1914 Upjohn was selling 100 million Phenolax tablets a year.

Squabbles among the brothers led W.E. Upjohn to buy out his brothers in 1910 with money borrowed from banks. For several years, despite the phenomenal success of Phenolax, Upjohn scrambled to meet his obligations. In 1913 he began the evolution into a research-based pharmaceutical firm with the hiring of Dr. Frederick W. Heyl from the University of Wyoming. The first product from the research team was an oral digitalis in 1919, quickly followed by Citrocarbonate,
a pleasant acid alkalizer, and Characol, a cherry flavor cough syrup.

Upjohn turned over most of the daily operations of the business in the 1920s. He spent most of his time in his later business years guaranteeing his family successor in the pharmaceutical firm. His son worked shortly as president but died of an embolism in 1928. Eventually an Upjohn nephew took over the company.

An avid gardener, Upjohn grew 650 varieties of peonies at his Kalamazoo estate and authored a book on flowers. He shortened the work day at the Upjohn Company in the summers, partly so employees could water lawns and tend home gardens.

To enjoy the increased leisure time of his employees Upjohn donated funds for the Milham Park Municipal Golf Course. He built a 17-acre park and was instrumental in the local cultural and religious community. He served in Kalamazoo city politics for a time and in 1926 organized the W.E. Upjohn Civic Trust.

During the Depression Upjohn bought 1200 acres to be converted into a farm where the jobless could work individual farm plots. In 1932 after a late autumn visit to Upjohn Richland Farms he came down with a chest cold which rapidly progressed to pneumonia.

He died soon after at the age of 79. "Hearts and flags of the city were at half-mast," reported the newspapers as Kalamazoo mourned its "first citizen."

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