Rochester Medicine

Tradition Video: The Nobel Closet

Jul. 15, 2014

Click here to watch this story on video.

“Any investigator is indeed fortunate who can contribute a tiny stone to the great edifice which we call scientific truth."

1934 Nobel PrizeThose are the words of George H. Whipple as he accepted the 1934 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine during a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden.  His award-winning research had started many years earlier at the University of California's Hooper Foundation.  It continued in Rochester, after he became the founding dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry in 1921.

Using dogs, Whipple studied the effects of different foods on anemia caused by significant blood loss.  His meticulous records were noted by Professor I. Holmgren, a member of the Nobel Prize committee. "Whipple's experiments were planned exceedingly well and carried out very accurately," Holmgren said during the presentation ceremony.

While conducting his research, Whipple discovered liver seemed to be the best food to repair anemia in his dogs. This finding caught the attention of two Harvard University scientists, George Minot and William P. Murphy,who were studying a different type of anemia called pernicious anemia.Whipple's research documentation

"In the early 20th century, pernicious anemia was a huge medical problem, and almost universally fatal," Marshall A. Lichtman, M.D., says. Lichtman, professor Medicine and Hematology/Oncology at the School of Medicine and Dentistry, says patients suffering from pernicious anemia faced severe physical and neurological impairment before they died. "No one really had a clue about what caused this disease or how it could be treated."

Influenced by Whipple's work, Minot and Murphy set up their own study in hopes of finding a cure.

"It was one of the largest studies at the time, with some 45 patients with pernicious anemia," Lichtman says.  "They began feeding them a very elaborate diet, containing a lot of things besides liver.  But through a series of trial and error, they began to sense that liver was the main beneficial effect."

This finding resulted in a treatment that required consumption of massive amounts of liver.  Not pleasant, but life saving.  And worthy of a Noble Prize.  (Eventually, scientists would isolate the key ingredient in liver -- Vitamin B12 -- so patients today need only to have monthly injections.)

Whipple museumSeveral decades after winning the Nobel Prize, Whipple retired from the University of Rochester.  His office was turned into a museum, everything left just the way it was when he closed the door.  The pages and pages of handwritten notes recording his Nobel Prize-winning research, however, were not there.  After Whipple died in 1976, his children gave his medal to the University.  They did not, however, have his painstaking research. No one knew where it was.

More than a decade later, Edward G. Miner Librarian Christopher Hoolihan, M.L.S., received an unexpected visit.

“A maintenance man came to me and he said, 'For years I’ve been using a closet and I store my mop in there and my bucket  and my brooms and all my cleaning supplies and my coffee pot and my chair where I take a break,'” Hoolihan recalls. "And, he said there were a lot of filing cabinets in there."

The closet was adjacent to Whipple's old office, but an old door connecting the two had been sealed over. Hoolihan was amazed by what he found in the cabinets.

"It was all Whipple's research that he had done on dogs, both at the Hooper Institute in San Francisco and here in Rochester, by which he earned the Nobel Prize.  It was all his original research, sitting in these filing cabinets for decades!"

Hoolihan, needless to say, carefully catalogued the papers, which now are safely stored in the Miner Library archives.


Leon Miller

For another perspective on the Whipple's career, listen to this oral history recording of the late Leon L. Miller, M.D., Ph.D., a longtime URMC scientist and physician.