William 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 Upjohn Company.
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.
Family and Friends
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 Brothers, then the largest department store in the city. They lived together in one of the lovely homes on W. South Street.
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.
Written by Martha Lohrstorfer and Catherine Larson, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, 2002. Last updated June 3, 2010.