William Parry Murphy Biography (1892-1987)

physician, pathologist

William Parry Murphy was born 1892 in Wisconsin, to Congregational minister Thomas Francis Murphy and his wife, Rose Anna Parry. He attended public schools in Wisconsin and received his B.A. in 1914 from the University of Oregon. Murphy taught high school math and physics for two years in Oregon before entering the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland, where he also worked in the anatomy department as a laboratory assistant. He later received theWilliam Stanislaus Murphy Fellowship award and entered Harvard Medical Schoolin Boston, from which he graduated in 1922.

In 1925, Murphy began a collaboration with George Richards Minot that would ultimately earn them the Nobel Prize. Minot recruited Murphy to join his study, in which pernicious anemia patients were fed one-quarter to one-half poundof liver daily. Reputed for his diligence and dedication, Murphy assumed thepainstaking, time-consuming responsibility of counting the microscopic reticulocytes (red blood cells) in the blood samples of pernicious anemia patientsbefore and during the liver diet. The dramatic increase in reticulocytes in the samples following the patient's consumption of liver clearly identified the critical connection between liver ingestion and the production of mature red blood cells.

The liver diet therapy for pernicious anemia presented certain problems. Patients found it difficult to ingest such large quantities of liver every day. Also troublesome was the question of how to feed it to patients so ill they could no longer eat. Following a suggestion from one of his patients, Murphy partially solved the problem by feeding patients liquefied liver through stomach tubes. Murphy, however, was not satisfied. He and Minot enlisted the expertise of Edwin J. Cohn, a physical chemistry professor at Harvard Medical School. Cohn chemically reduced large amounts of liver to a concentrated extract fifty to one hundred times more potent than the liver itself. Ingestion of three vials a day of this extract, which cost $17.00 a month, proved just as effective as the cheaper but less palatable liver diet, which cost approximately$5.50 a month. Murphy felt the cost of the extract was prohibitive for manypeople and continued to search for a less expensive method of administering it. He sought the help of Guy W. Clark of the Lederle Laboratories; soon theydeveloped an extremely concentrated extract. Injected into the muscle only once a month, the extract provided the same therapeutic effect as the liver diet or the oral extract. The monthly cost of this injection was $1.20.

Medical professionals, however, were skeptical of the results of the carefully documented study, which Murphy and Minot presented in 1926, because the treatment seemed too simple. Pernicious anemia had been thought to be caused bysome type of poison, and patients were treated with arsenic, blood transfusions, or surgery, all to no avail. Worldwide treatment by the liver diet soon convinced the skeptics. Murphy's work was advanced by Harvard physician William Castle, who, in 1948, isolated the active ingredient in liver which promoted the development of fully mature red blood cells in patients suffering frompernicious anemia. That factor, named cyanocobalamin for its high concentration of cobalt, is commonly called Vitamin B12, which is now used universally via intramuscular injection for the lifesaving treatment of pernicious anemia.

In addition to working with Minot on the liver diet study, Murphy became Minot's partner in private practice in Boston. In 1924, he was appointed assistant in medicine at Harvard Medical School, promoted to associate in medicine atthe Brigham Hospital in 1935, and became a senior associate in medicine andconsultant in hematology there. He married Pearl Harriet Adams in 1919; theyhad a son and a daughter. Murphy's honors include the Cameron Prize and Lectureship of the University of Edinburgh, the Bronze Medal of the American Medical Association, and the Gold Medal of the Massachusetts Humane Society. He died in 1987, in Massachusetts.

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