George Minot and William Murphy
1934 Nobel Prize winners Dr. George Minot, and Dr. William Murphy, BA '14

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A Prizeworthy Liver

Anemia, a condition in which the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells to provide oxygen to body tissues, used to be a death sentence for those who were diagnosed with it.

So, what if you were told that macrocytic anemia could be treated by eating liver (fava beans and a nice Chianti being optional, of course)?

And what if you were told that a University of Oregon graduate received a Nobel Prize for discovering this treatment?

Macrocytosis occurs when the red blood cells in one’s body are larger than their normal volume, causing for a number of complications ranging from achy muscles to constant fatigue to possible death. Before 1920, pernicious anemia—or macrocytic anemia—was a fatal disease, where, if diagnosed, the patient was given between one and three years to live. The idea to use raw liver as a treatment surfaced when a medical scientist, George Whipple, ‘bled’ dogs to make them anemic, and fed them various types of food to see how quickly they reacted and recovered.

With immense curiosity and inquisitiveness, 1914 graduate William Murphy set about to explain what it was in the liver that cured anemia. After isolating the curative property in liver juice, Murphy concluded that iron in the liver tissues was the key to curing anemic patients. He then determined that by ingesting large amounts of liver containing iron, anemic patients began witnessing a miraculous recovery. It was an implausible advancement in medicine for that time, and from this discovery, Murphy and his team were able to then isolate vitamin B12, the ingredient responsible for treating anemia.

Murphy illustrated his discoveries in a short motion picture. Through rough edited black and white shots of patients in hospital gowns and with simple narration, Murphy highlights the signs and symptoms of pernicious anemia. The last segment of the first part of the film compares therapy with ingesting whole liver, oral liver extract, and concentrated extract for intramuscular injection. Murphy recommended a diet consisting of 120 to 240 grams of cooked beef liver to his patients, and part two of the film revealed significant improvements in the patients’ health.

While working toward his bachelor of arts in biology, Murphy spent his free time teaching physics and mathematics in high schools neighboring the UO. After graduation, Murphy was awarded the William Stanislaus Murphy Fellowship at Harvard Medical School in Boston, and graduated from Harvard in 1922 as a Doctor of Medicine.

Doctor Murphy was known for his motivational drive to unfold and delve into new theories relating to medicine—anemia being one of them. In 1923, Murphy began practicing medicine at Harvard Medical University while successively engaging in research on diabetes as well as on diseases of the blood.

After years of effort and determination through experiments and revelations, Murphy’s outstanding research was finally recognized when he and his team, George Richards Minot and George Hoyt Whipple, received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1934.

On one occasion while visiting his family in Portland, not long after winning the Nobel Prize, Murphy shared his insights and knowledge in an interview with the Oregonian. In the article, Murphy said, “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 any more 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."

- Naomi Arthur, UO student