William P. Murphy: Condon’s Other Nobel Prize Winner

William P. Murphy, 1930s.  Image courtesy of the Nobel museum.

William P. Murphy, 1930s. Image courtesy of the Nobel museum.

Condon – as you are undoubtedly already aware if you are a regular reader of this blog – is a very small town in Gilliam County in North-Central Oregon. According to the 2000 census, the town’s population consisted of only 759 people, and in the early 1900s, when the Pauling family lived in Condon, the population was even smaller.

Despite its size, Condon can boast of an interesting statistic: Two of its early 1900s residents would later go on to win Nobel Prizes. One of these men is the blog’s namesake, Linus Pauling. The other man is a lesser-known physician named William Parry Murphy.

William P. Murphy was born on February 6, 1892 in Stoughton, Wisconsin. He was educated at public schools throughout Wisconsin and Oregon, and in 1910, he graduated from Gilliam County High School. Unfortunately, other information about his youth is scarce, and it is not clear precisely how long he lived in Condon. According to legend, his and Pauling’s time there overlapped, but if their residences in Condon did in fact coincide, it is unlikely that they would have had much in the way of contact with each other. Pauling was born on February 28, 1901, and was therefore a full nine years younger than Murphy.

However, we do have record in our collection that these two men corresponded with each other later in their lives and that Murphy was one of the 9,000+ signatories of Pauling’s famous United Nations Bomb Test Petition.

William P. Murphy's signature added to "An Appeal by American Scientists to the Governments and People of the World"

William P. Murphy's signature added to "An Appeal by American Scientists to the Governments and People of the World"

Following his public school education, Murphy attended the University of Oregon in Eugene. In 1914, he received an A.B. degree, and spent the next two years teaching physics and mathematics in high schools around Oregon. After his short stint as a teacher, Murphy decided to attend medical school. He spent one year at the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland, and appears to have left Oregon for good that summer when he enrolled in courses at the Rush Medical School in Chicago.

On September 10, 1919, Murphy married Pearl Harriet Adams, and that same year was awarded the William Stanislaus Murphy Fellowship at Harvard Medical School in Boston. He retained this fellowship for three years, and graduated from Harvard in 1922 as a Doctor of Medicine.

After his graduation in 1922, Murphy interned at the Rhode Island hospital in Providence. Not long after, he was appointed resident physician at Peter Bent Brigham hospital in Boston. During his short time at the University of Oregon Medical School, Murphy had become interested in developing a cure for anemia. However, he wasn’t able to actively work towards this ambition until he was at the Boston hospital. He specifically began to work on pernicious anemia, using intramuscular injections of liver extract as a treatment for both pernicious anemia and hypochromic anemia.

After his time at Peter Bent Brigham hospital, Murphy was appointed instructor of Medicine at Harvard. At Harvard, Murphy was able to work with George Richards Minot and George Hoyt Whipple to develop a treatment of pernicious anemia through a diet of uncooked liver. Murphy, Minot, and Whipple shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for 1934 “for their discoveries concerning liver therapy in cases of anaemia.” In 1939, Murphy collected his work in the text Anemia in Practice: Pernicious Anemia.

Although Murphy never lived in Oregon again, he did occasionally return to visit his parents, sister, and two brothers, all of whom lived in Portland. On one occasion, not long after winning the Nobel Prize, Murphy was interviewed for an article in The Oregonian. When asked about pernicious anemia, he noted:

A few years ago pernicious anemia was one of the diseases that was always fatal, it was sure to be fatal within a year. But now it need not be so anymore than measles or other minor complaint. A person who has pernicious anemia has a life expectancy as long as if he didn’t have it, providing the proper treatment is given.

(Sadly, Murphy’s breakthroughs were not made soon enough for Linus Pauling’s mother Belle, who died of pernicious anemia in 1926.)

Throughout the remainder of his career, William Murphy worked as a consulting hematologist to several hospitals. He also made his way through the ranks at Harvard Medical School, moving from Assistant in Medicine in 1924 to Senior Associate in Medicine in 1958. After his retirement, he was appointed Emeritus Lecturer in Medicine at Harvard.

Although he shared the Nobel Prize, leaders in the nation of Finland called him the “real discoverer” of the cure for pernicious anemia and gave him the Order of the White, the country’s highest decoration. He also received the Cameron prize from the faculty of the University of Edinburgh and the Gold Medal from the Massachusetts Humane Society, and was elected a member of the Halle academy of science in Germany.

William P. Murphy died on October 9, 1987.

For more information on Condon’s other Nobel Prize winner, Linus Pauling, please visit the Linus Pauling Online portal.  For more stories of Pauling’s relationship with Oregon, click here.

Oregon 150

2 Responses

  1. […] William P. Murphy: Condon’s Other Nobel Prize Winner (an amazing historical […]

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