The University Record, March 18, 1998

Historical Record

The Simpson Memorial Institute for Medical Research was created for the study of pernicious anemia, a treatment for which was discovered before the building was completed in 1926. Research at the Institute led to a more complete understanding of the disease and a compound that greatly improved the treatment. Illustration courtesy Historical Center for the Health Sciences


By Patricia S. Whitesell

Did you know that the Simpson Memorial Institute for Medical Research, located at Observatory and East Ann streets, was created in 1926 to identify a cure for pernicious anemia?

You may not have heard of this disease, but in the 1920s it was mysterious, incurable and deadly. It claimed, on average, 11 of every 100,000 people in Michigan between 1921‚25. Thomas Henry Simpson, a wealthy industrialist in the iron industry, was one of the casualties. His widow, Catherine MacDonald Simpson, donated over $400,000 to the University in 1924 to create an institute devoted to discovery of a cure.

It was around 1910 that privately funded clinical research institutes first began to be established. The Simpson Institute followed the emerging model by bringing together the research laboratory and patient wards. It also served to expose students to medical research, which inspired many students to pursue research careers.

Ironically, even before a director could be appointed to head the Simpson Institute, a treatment for pernicious anemia was identified in 1926 through research at other laboratories, for which George Minot, William Murphy, and George Whipple were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1934.

Dr. Cyrus Sturgis was appointed as inaugural director of the Simpson Institute, and his research led in 1929 to the development of a new compound, called ventriculin, that provided a missing intrinsic factor secreted by the stomach lining. In contrast, Minot, Murphy, and Whipple¼s treatment had required consumption of massive quantities of liver, which was a difficult regimen for patients.

The arrangement made for ventriculin between the University and Parke-Davis was a precursor to the profusion of licensing agreements between industry and academia today. After the discovery of ventriculin, the Institute focused its research on blood and neoplastic diseases.

The Simpson building was designed by architect Albert Kahn, who also did Hill Auditorium, Burton Tower, Angell Hall, Clements and Hatcher libraries, and many other buildings on campus. The impressive main floor of Simpson was furnished with Tiffany glass vases, carved and tapestried furniture, walnut paneling, and etchings and other works of art, which reflected Mrs. Simpson¼s desire to provide an atmosphere that would inspire researchers and soothe patients. The upper floors were efficient in their simplicity.

Today, the building serves the Department of Internal Medicine, and stands as a monument to the history of medical research and breakthroughs in medical science at Michigan. Due to its significance in science, research and architecture, the University is considering nominating the Simpson building to the National Register of Historic Places.

This monthly column examines interesting aspects of University history. Send suggestions for future articles to the author at Historical_Record@umich.edu.