E. Upjohn: Person of the Century
1853 - 1932
William Erastus Upjohn was the founder, and for
nearly 40 years, the president of The Upjohn Company. Upjohn was one of twelve children born to Dr. Uriah Upjohn, an
area pioneer who practiced medicine in Kalamazoo for 52 years. He
was also one of four siblings who became physicians. After
receiving his medical degree from the University of Michigan in
1875, he practiced medicine in Hastings for ten years.
Known by his contemporaries as a dreamer and a tinkerer, Dr. Upjohn
saw a need to improve the means of administering medicine. Most
medicines of the day were in fluid form, and those in pill form
were often hard and insoluble. Patients were left to try to digest
the bitter medicine, with no guarantee that it would dissolve in
their systems effectively.
Dr. Upjohn began experimenting with making better pills in the
attic of his home. Eventually he invented his "friable"
pill. Friable meant that the pill could easily be crushed to a powder.
The pill was patented in 1885, and its reputation quickly spread
within the medical community, thanks greatly to Dr. Upjohn's marketing
strategy. He sent small pine boards to thousands of physicians along
with samples of his rival's hard pills, and his own friable pills.
He invited doctors to hammer the pills into the boards to see which
one would be the most digestible. This tactic was eventually modified,
but for the next 60 years, a thumb reducing an Upjohn pill to powder
was used as the trademark symbol of his company, the Upjohn Pill
and Granule Company, later more widely known to the world as The
His interests extended well beyond the field of medicine into civic
affairs. One of his lasting legacies was the establishment here
of the commission-manager form of
government. Under this form of
government, Kalamazoo residents elected him the city's first mayor,
and the commission quickly wiped out a heavy debt the city had encumbered.
Among his philanthropies, he is particularly remembered for his
contribution of the seed money for what is now the Kalamazoo Community Foundation,
for establishing what later became the W.
E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, and for his gift
to the city of the Civic
Auditorium. In his private life he was
known for his love of flowers and the establishment of beautiful
gardens at Brook
Lodge, his summer home near Augusta.
William Upjohn's first wife, Rachel Babcock, by whom he had four
children, died after twenty-seven years of marriage. His second
marriage united two of the most prominent families in Kalamazoo.
In 1913 he married his neighbor Carrie Sherwood Gilmore, widow of
James F. Gilmore, one of the founders of Gilmore
the largest department store in the city.
Called by many "Kalamazoo's First Citizen," Dr. Upjohn's
death in 1932 left the community in mourning. Flags flew at half-staff
when the news was announced. All businesses and schools in the city
closed for the hour of his funeral. The mayor of Kalamazoo spoke
for the city when he proclaimed that "the community has suffered
a loss that is irreparable." His influence was so profound
that nearly 70 years after his death, he was named the "Person
of the Century" by the Kalamazoo Gazette at the turn of the millennium.
There is a state
historic marker in his honor on
the Kalamazoo Mall.
For further information, we suggest
|| History Room Name File: Upjohn, William E.
|Meader, Robert Eugene. Historical Directory, v.32 (includes
||"Person of the Century: Upjohn made his mark on Kalamazoo",
Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 January 2000, section A, page 1.
House: 530 W. South Street
Written by Martha Lohrstorfer and Catherine
Larson, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, 2002. Last updated 7 June
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