Friday, February 2, 2024

Dr. William Upjohn and the Invention of the Friable Pill

Blogger: Amber Lemus

Dr. William Upjohn cir 1875
Photo By Mbcorcoran -
 Donald Reid Parfet,
Upjohn Company Collection.
 CC BY-SA 4.0
Today we are celebrating the life of a lesser-known inventor who advanced the way medicine was administered to patients. The friable pill is an invention that we take for granted in our modern day, but without this advancement in science, taking our daily supplements and medicines would be much more difficult.

William Upjohn was born on June 15, 1853, to Dr. Uriah Upjohn and his wife Maria. They lived in a town called Kalamazoo Michigan. William's father was a pioneer of the area and served as a physician to the local population for fifty-two years.

William was one of twelve children total, and one of the four who followed in their father's footsteps and become physicians. He graduated from the University of Michigan medical school in 1875, at the age of twenty-two.

On Christmas Eve of 1878, William married Rachel Phoebe Babcock. Together, they had five children, but only four of them would reach adulthood.

For ten years, "Doctor Will", as he was known, practiced medicine in Hastings, Michigan. During this time, he noticed a need for improvement in the way medicines were administered to patients. At the time, medicine was administered in powders and drops, or if they were in pill form, the pills were hard and not easily digestible, leaving the patient to choke down the bitter medicine and hope it absorbed into their system. William started tinkering in his attic with different ways to form pills. Eventually, he invented what he referred to as a "friable" pill, meaning that the pill could be easily crushed into powder, and easily dissolved in the stomach.

William received a patent on the friable pill in 1885. Once he had that patent, he worked on designing a machine that could manufacture these pills more easily. In 1886, he formed the Upjohn Pharmeceutical Company and began manufacturing those pills.

Upjohn Company Logo
Public Domain
Donald Reid Parfet, Upjohn Company Collection.

To market his new product, William employed a unique tactic. He sent small pine boards, along with a sample of his pill, versus his competitor's pill, and invited the physicians to hammer the pills into the board to see which ones were more easily digestible. This apparently worked, because his reputation spread rapidly and the pills became widely accepted. This tactic was later modified, but a thumb crushing the pill became the symbol of the Upjohn Pharmeceutical company for many years.

Besides his growing company, William and his family were beloved citizens of Kalamazoo. Their prominence only grew as the years went on. He established a commission-manager form of government for the city and was elected as the city's first mayor. The commission quickly wiped out a large sum of debts that the city had encumbered. William and the Upjohn Company were behind many philanthropic deeds in the city, including putting up the money to start the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.

On July 4, 1905, William's wife passed away after twenty-seven years of marriage. He waited eight years and a day before marrying again, this time to his neighbor, and a widow of another prominent family of Kalamazoo who owned the largest department store in the city. Apparently, he was fond of Christmas weddings, as this one was held on Christmas day, 1913. By then, his youngest child had reached adulthood, and he himself was sixty years of age.

When William died on October 18, 1932, the community of Kalamazoo grieved him. He'd become known as "Kalamazoo's First Citizen" and the flags were flown at half-mast in his honor, and all of the businesses and schools closed for the hour of his funeral.

The Upjohn Company remained in existence until 1995 when it merged with Pharmacia AB to form Pharmacia & Upjohn. The company was later bought out by Pfizer, however they recently resurrected the Upjohn name for a division that manufactures and licenses drugs for which patents have expired.

Though Doctor Will is a lesser-known inventor, I for one am very grateful for his contributions to medicine.


Two-time winner of the Christian Indie Award for historical fiction, Amber Lemus inspires hearts through enthralling tales She has a passion for travel, history, books and her Savior. This combination results in what her readers call "historical fiction at its finest".

She lives near the Ozarks in her "casita" with her prince charming. Between enjoying life as a boy mom, and spinning stories out of soap bubbles, Amber loves to connect with readers and hang out on Goodreads with other bookish peoples.

Amber is a proud member of the American Christian Fiction Writers Association. Visit her online at and download a FREE story by subscribing to her Newsletter!


  1. Thank you for posting today. I enjoyed learning about Dr. Will. I, too, thank him for the progress he made in making pills easier to take.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Connie! Glad you enjoyed the post.