Upjohn Company

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In the Victorian era promoting and marketing early pharmaceutical products required talent, skill, and ingenuity. From the very beginning research and development played a major role in the development of modern pharmaceutical production. William Erastus Upjohn (commonly referred to as W.E.) was raised with his twelve brothers and sisters in an environment of medicine and pharmacia. His father and two uncles, all of whom were medical practitioners, nurtured this environment. W.E. Upjohn became a physician in 1875. While practicing medicine in Hastings, Michigan, he set up his own pharmaceutical laboratory. He began to experiment with formulas to develop a pill that would dissolve easily in the stomach. Upjohn revolutionized the drug industry in 1885, when he worked out problems and crushed a pill under his thumb to symbolize the achievement. This image became the trademark for the founding of the Upjohn Pill and Granule Company in 1886. The name was shortened to the Upjohn Company in 1903.

Dr. W.E. Upjohn's concern with the working conditions of his employees was evident, as he implemented a soup lunch program in 1911 and a group life insurance and benefit program in 1915. Having had a passion for horticulture, Upjohn donated a 17-acre park to the city of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and reduced the workday to seven hours in the summer so employees would have time to water their own lawns. Upjohn was a member of the commission that established the charter for the city of Kalamazoo in 1914, and served as the first mayor to administer the plan. Upon his death in 1932, W.E. Upjohn was in the process of trying to develop a form of employment insurance for the people of Kalamazoo. The Upjohn Company had over 1000 employees and net sales of $8.5 million.

Through the turn of the century souvenirs promoting Upjohn products were available at the Chicago's World Fair; the exhibit itself was an enormous bottle filled with colored pills. The Upjohn principle that medicine should have a pleasant taste was exemplified in flavored laxative wafers, alkalizers, and cherry-flavored cough syrup. Marketing through physicians became a method of promoting Upjohn products such as Kaopectate, an antidiarrheal. Eventually Upjohn became a leader in the development of medicines for treating the central nervous system, heart conditions, arthritis and cancer.

In 1913 Upjohn continued its emphasis on research and development by hiring its first research scientist, Dr. Frederick W. Heyl. Heyl developed an effervescent antacid in 1926 and patented a tablet named Digitora (developed from digitalis) for the treatment of heart disease. By 1940 the company had expanded and added twelve more research scientists. Upjohn was selected by the armed forces to process human serum albumin and penicillin. Upjohn became a major manufacturer of antibiotics, and by 1958 antibiotic sales had reached $22.6 million. International expansion during the 1950s enabled Upjohn to compete in foreign markets and advance their research. In 1985 thirty percent of their total sales were from the foreign market share which increased to 33 percent by the 1990s.

A swarm of publicity surrounded Upjohn in the late 1980s when the company applied for a new drug application for male baldness known as Rogaine. After three years of disappointing sales Upjohn changed marketing strategies by taking the product directly to the consumer. Investing $50 million to promote Rogaine the company become one of the world's top three advertisers. In the early 1990s Upjohn was quickly trying to develop a treatment for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) as well as a group of steroids designed to treat spinal and head injuries, which would replace some products being lost to the generic market.

In the face of the changing global market Upjohn sought to consolidate its position in the ethical pharmaceutical industry. There was speculation that Upjohn was too small to compete with its larger rivals. In response to the challenge Upjohn reorganized and merged with Pharmacia AB of Stockholm, Sweden. Pharmacia & Upjohn became one of the world's largest pharmaceutical firms, with annual sales of $7 billion, a research budget of $1 billion, and over 30,000 employees.

See also: Pharmaceutical Industry


Carlisle, Robert D.B. A Century of Caring: The Upjohn Story. Elmsford, NY: Benjamin Co., 1987.

Dryer, Bernard V. The Torch Bearers. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967.

Engel, Leonard. Medicine Makers of Kalamazoo. New York: McGraw Hill, 1961.

International Directory of Company Histories. Farmington Hills, MI: St James Press, 1999, s.v. "Upjohn Company."

Novotny, Ann and Carter Smith. Images of Healing. A Portfolio of American Medical and Pharmaceutical Practice in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th Centuries. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1980.