Society has Granted Prestigious National Historic Chemical
Landmark Status to Kalamazoo Scientists
(Kalamazoo, Mich.) The American Chemical
Society (ACS) has granted prestigious National Historic Chemical
Landmark status to the steroid chemistry achievements of
Kalamazoo scientists who worked at The Upjohn Company during the
years 1950-1990. “Each Landmark designation represents a
pioneering achievement that has contributed to society and the
chemical profession,” said Alan Rocke, chair of the National
Historic Chemical Landmarks (NHCL) Subcommittee.
“Upjohn’s research in steroid medicines is a prime
example, because it enabled the firm to make low-cost,
high-quality treatments for debilitating diseases like
The company’s innovations also contributed to the launch
of the biotech industry.”
The ACS established the NHCL program in 1992,
to enhance public appreciation for the contribution of chemical
sciences to modern life. Under the NHCL program, ACS grants
Landmark status to seminal achievements in the history of the
chemical sciences and provides a record of these contributions
to chemistry and society. To date, 85 Landmark designations have
“The field of chemistry has
transformed our lives, from advancing medicine and industry to
creating new products such as steroid medicines, penicillin,
plastics and more”, said Steve Secreast, Kalamazoo ACS Local
Section 2018 Chairperson. “A public dedication event and other
activities are being planned to commemorate the Landmark
designation. Plans include a banquet May 16, 2019 honoring the
steroid chemistry achievements, a chemistry symposium and a
dedication ceremony on May 17, 2019 to place a commemorative
bronze plaque on permanent display at the Kalamazoo Valley
Museum,” Secreast said.
These activities are a
collaboration among the Kalamazoo ACS Local Section, the ACS
NHCL Subcommittee, Apjohn Group LLC, Kalamazoo Valley Museum
(KVM), Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC), Western
Michigan University (WMU), Kalamazoo College (K-College) and
local company sponsors Bridge Organics Co., Kalexsyn Inc.,
Pfizer Inc. and Zoetis Inc.
Mention steroids today and many people think of
performance-enhancement drugs. Mention steroids in 1949,
however, and most people thought of the new major medical
breakthrough that one class of steroids, the corticosteroids,
could successfully treat debilitating inflammatory diseases like
rheumatoid arthritis. The discovery that steroid compounds like
cortisone and hydrocortisone were safe and effective medicines
was welcome news to millions of people suffering from
inflammatory diseases. Unfortunately, in 1949, those medicines
were only available from natural extracts or very lengthy
manufacturing processes, making them scarce and prohibitively
“To make large volumes of the new
corticosteroid medicines available at a reasonable cost, The
Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo committed to an unprecedented
expansion of an already established background in steroid
chemistry work in the late 1940s,” said Donald R. Parfet,
retired Upjohn officer and great grandson of Upjohn Company
founder, William E. Upjohn. “In
1950 the company started what became an on-going program of
steroid chemistry innovation. The commercial production of
beneficial corticosteroids and later general steroid medicines
was provided to the world through a continuous string of
chemical and microbiological discoveries and inventions by
Kalamazoo scientists,” he said.
The Upjohn Company
was a pharmaceutical manufacturing firm founded in 1886 in
Kalamazoo, Michigan by
Dr. William E. Upjohn, an 1875 graduate of the
University of Michigan
medical school. The company was originally formed to make
friable pills, which were specifically designed by Upjohn to
be easily digested. These could be "reduced to a powder under
the thumb", a strong marketing argument at the time.
Upjohn developed a process for the large-scale production of
cortisone. The oxygen atom at the 11 position in the molecular
structure of this steroid is an absolute requirement for
biological activity. However, there are no known natural sources
for starting materials that contain that feature. The only
method for preparing this drug prior to 1952 was a lengthy
synthesis starting from
cholic acid isolated from bile. In 1952 Upjohn
scientists Durey Peterson and Herbert Murray announced that
their development team was able to introduce this crucial oxygen
atom by fermentation of the steroid progesterone with a common
mold of the genus Rhizopus. Over the next
several years, chemists headed by John Hogg adapted this
microbiological oxidation into a process for preparing cortisone
from the sterol stigmasterol.
Another key step, the efficient extraction of the minor
stigmasterol from a waste stream of processing soybeans into
purified oil, was engineered by J.Ward Greiner’s team.
Following on the successful syntheses of cortisone and
hydrocortisone, the steroid chemistry work was further advanced
to produce improved, later-generation medicines like prednisone
These advances, which also improved the general science of
chemical synthesis, include the well-known “Upjohn
dihydroxylation” by V. VanRheenen, R. C. Kelly and D. Y. Cha in
1976. The industrial synthesis of corticosteroids was changed
forever by multiple inventions in 1982-1990 enabling the use of
the major component of soy sterols (sitosterol). Once again,
microbiological steps (M.G. Wovcha, F.J. Antosz, J.C. Knight,
C.B. Biggs) were combined with chemical innovations such as the
Silicon Nucleophile Annelation Process (SNAP, D.A. Livingston,
B.A. Pearlman and S.E. Denmark). The resulting corticosteroid
active ingredients were formulated and analyzed by other Upjohn
scientists into steroid medicines, and even sold to other
companies worldwide for use in other medicines.
In 1995, Upjohn merged with
Pharmacia AB, to form
Pharmacia & Upjohn. In
2000, Pharmacia & Upjohn merged with Monsanto’s pharmaceutical
operations creating Pharmacia, Inc., and spun-out the
agricultural chemical business into a new public entity under
the name Monsanto.
In 2003, Pfizer acquired Pharmacia.
Pfizer has maintained the large Kalamazoo manufacturing
site, which is today the single largest integrated chemical and
pharmaceutical site in its portfolio.
The Upjohn Company history of innovative research and
development is often referenced by the strong pharmaceutical
brands it created throughout it’s more than 100-year history.
Many patients and physicians today continue to benefit
from steroid medicines such as Solu-Medrol, Depo-Medrol,
Solu-Cortef, Depo-Provera, and Cortaid, as well as other brands
like Xanax, Halcion, Motrin, Lincocin, Cleocin, Micronase,
Zyvox, Rogaine, and Kaopectate.
Today, society benefits from continuing innovations by Kalamazoo
scientists not only at Pfizer but also at nearby companies, like
Bridge Organics, Kalexsyn, Kalsec & many others, and local
colleges such as K-College, KVCC and WMU.
The Kalamazoo Valley Museum is proud to be able to offer a
permanent home for the ACS National Historic Chemical Landmark
plaque,” said KVM Director Bill McElhone.
“The museum, located in downtown Kalamazoo on Kalamazoo
Valley’s Arcadia Commons Campus, provides free general admission
and is open to the public seven days a week.
It houses more than 55,000 Kalamazoo-area artifacts.
This historic designation, for one of Kalamazoo’s most
famous institutions and the ground-breaking work of its
scientists, is an important part of the region’s history,” he
said. The Kalamazoo
Valley Museum is operated by Kalamazoo Valley Community College
and is governed by its Board of Trustees.
more information about the American Chemical Society and the
Landmark program, visit National Historic Chemical Landmark
program, visit www.acs.org and
For a schedule of local events associated with the May 2019