Although he was interested in medicine, William P. Murphy did not have enough funds for the medical school. Hence from 1914 to 1916, he served as a high school teacher of physics and mathematics, saving money for medical studies.
With his saved funds, he finally took admission at the Medical School of the University of Oregon, at Portland. At the same time, he also acted as a laboratory assistant in the Department of Anatomy. Unfortunately, his funds ran short after only a year of study, forcing him to quit the course.
From 1917 to 1918, he spent two years in the US army. As luck would have it, he chanced upon an unusual Harvard fellowship sponsored by a former student, William Stanislaus Murphy, who particularly wanted to fund “collegiate education of men of the name of Murphy.”
This fund became instrumental in helping him complete his medical studies. He received the scholarship for the next three years and graduated as a Doctor of Medicine from Harvard Medical School, Boston in 1922.
After becoming Doctor, Murphy spent a couple of years at Rhode Island Hospital as House Officer and then became Assistant Resident Physician at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. After one and a half year of service, he was appointed Junior Associate in Medicine at the same hospital.
During this period, he did general research on diabetes mellitus and other blood diseases. His work on anaemia, especially pernicious anaemia was particularly noteworthy.
While researching anaemia, he discovered that when a large amount of raw liver was ingested, it refurbished red blood cells more rapidly than other foods. He teamed up with Dr. George Richards Minot and George Hoyt Whipple who then chemically segregated the remedial substance.
The research further revealed that iron in the liver was responsible for curing anaemia caused from bleeding. After successful animal testing, the raw liver diet treatment was experimented on people with pernicious anaemia.
Successful testing on humans led to the discovery of an active ingredient which was a water-soluble extract, containing a new substance. Chemists eventually isolated Vitamin B12 from this extract.
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Since pernicious anaemia was until then an incurable and fatal disease, the awareness that uncooked liver and its extracts could be a treatment turned out to be a major advancement in medicine.
Thereafter, from 1928 to 1935, he was Instructor in Medicine at Harvard. For their groundbreaking discovery, he was awarded (along with Minot and Whipple) the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1934.
From 1935 to 1938, he was Associate in Medicine at Harvard. He wrote ‘Anaemia in Practice: Pernicious Anemia’ in 1939.
From 1948 to 1958, he was Lecturer in Medicine at Harvard. In 1958, he became Senior Associate and finally, the Emeritus Lecturer in Medicine at Harvard. He also served as the consulting haematologist to several hospitals.
Awards & Achievements
Along with George H. Whipple and George R. Minot, William Murphy won the prestigious Nobel Prize in 1934 in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning liver therapy in cases of anaemia”. Together with Minot, he also won the Cameron Prize of the University of Edinburgh, in 1930.
In 1934, he also won the Bronze Medal of the American Medical Association and the First Rank of Decoration - Commander of the Order of the White Rose, Finland.
He received the National Order of Merit, Cuba in 1952. He was also a member of several medical and allied societies in the USA and abroad, including the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina.
Personal Life & Legacy
William P. Murphy married Pearl Harriett Adams, a descendant of US President John Adams and the first licensed female dentist in Massachusetts, on 10 September 1919.
The couple’s son, William P. Murphy Jr. grew up to be a renowned physician. Their only daughter, Priscilla Adams was interested in aviation but unfortunately expired young in a plane crash in 1936.
He died on 9 October 1987 at Brookline, USA.