The Last Word

The Legacies of W.E. Upjohn

A lot of us know the name, but do we know the legacies he left all around us?

What’s in a name? For the past 128 years, many people here in Kalamazoo County would say “a lot,” especially when the name is W.E. Upjohn.

The legacies of Dr. William E. Upjohn, who is often referred to by his initials, W.E., are solidly embedded in the popular culture of greater Kalamazoo. His presence at the company he founded in 1886 – as the Upjohn Pill and Granule Co. – remained long after he passed away in 1932. Upjohn retirees still recall his image and famous saying, “Keep the quality up.” That was an important part of the company culture – even more so for those recipients of the prestigious W.E. Upjohn Prize.  

I was lucky enough to work at The Upjohn Co. for seven years before the merger with Pharmacia, and I continued on with Pharmacia & Upjohn for three years. Like many Upjohn employees, I’d planned to stay there until my retirement. Although job shifts to the East Coast didn’t allow for that, I always thought that if I couldn’t stay at The Upjohn Co., I would work for another one of his legacy organizations. That finally happened two years ago when I joined the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, for which he made the original donation in 1925.

A drive through Kalamazoo County from Richland to Portage or a walk downtown illustrates W.E.’s lasting impact on our community. There are places like the Upjohn home in the South Street Historic District, his old office downtown on Henrietta Street (now John St.), and the Upjohn summer home at Brook Lodge in Augusta. There are places named for him: a pond, a street, a park and, most recently, the Western Michigan University medical campus in downtown Kalamazoo. Pedestrians on the Kalamazoo Mall walk past the Michigan historical marker telling his story every day.

There are organizations he helped establish that are not named after him, such as the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, as well as other buildings and institutions to which the Upjohn family donated, such as the, Kalamazoo College  library, Bronson Methodist Hospital and First Congregational Church. And there are organizations that bear his history and inspiration, such as the Apjohn Group, a life-science incubator consulting group on East Michigan Avenue (Apjohn preceded the family name of Upjohn), a team of business and pharmaceutical professionals who work with innovators to help launch life-science companies.

Two unique institutions here not only bear his name, but use the initials W.E. in their name, providing another layer of memory beyond legacies featuring the Upjohn name. The first one begins with the closing chapter of W.E.’s amazing 79 years. It was during the early years of the Great Depression when he purchased 1,200 acres in Richland in 1932 to provide work farming that land for 100 people without jobs. W.E. devoted his final year in this effort against unemployment in what he said he hoped would be “the most important thing I ever did.” That led to a gift that year by W.E. and his wife, Carrie Gilmore Upjohn (widow of dry-goods merchant James F. Gilmore), to launch the W.E. Upjohn Unemployment Trustee Corp.

In 1945 this corporation established the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, commonly known today as the Upjohn Institute. Located in a historic home and recently remodeled buildings downtown, the institute is a private, nonprofit independent research organization devoted to investigating the causes and effects of unemployment. Institute staff identifies feasible methods of ensuring against unemployment and devises ways and means of alleviating the distress and hardship caused by unemployment. There is no other organization like it in the nation.

The institute’s boardroom is appointed with an oil painting of W.E. that previously decorated the boardroom of The Upjohn Co.’s headquarters on Portage Road. For its 75th anniversary in 2007, the institute produced a video about its founder, which is posted on its website at upjohninst.org/AboutUs/HistoryandMission.

Lesser known is The W.E. Upjohn Center for the Study of Geographical Change, established at WMU in 2005 by Edwin E. and Mary Upjohn Meader (a granddaughter of W.E.). Housed at Welborn Hall, this center is the only facility of its kind in the world. It digitally preserves and enables the study and analysis of historical maps and aerial photographs by researchers, teachers and students, businesses and government agencies, and interested citizens. Last year the center won awards from the International Map Industry Association for best digital product and best product overall for North America.

And finally, here at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, we are proud to have two namesakes: the W.E. Upjohn Society, which meets once a year, and the W.E. Upjohn Community Fund.  Last year, when StoryCorps visited Kalamazoo to record “Love Where You Live” stories, Martha Parfet talked about how her grandfather helped the Chamber of Commerce committee create a community foundation. A three-minute podcast of her interview is online at kalfound.org/AboutUs/StoryCorpsEveryVoiceMatters.

In one of his many features written for Encore over the years, Tom Thinnes – whom I have always considered the biographer of notables in Southwest Michigan (our own James Boswell) – wrote, “Somewhere, Dr. William Erastus Upjohn must be smiling,” as he eloquently described the impact of the seed money W.E. donated to begin the Community Foundation. Indeed, I think W.E. is viewing us with a huge smile – that closed-lip type of smile we see in his portraits – as our community goes about its daily business of helping one another making life better in a variety of ways, many of them still reflecting his touch. I hope his continued presence in our lives inspires W.E.s from future generations to do more of the same. “Love Where You Live.” I think he would embrace that phrase.

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About the author

Tom Vance

Tom Vance, director of marketing communications at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, has an M.A. in U.S. history with a concentration in biography from Western Michigan University. He is the author of the biography Elliot Richardson: The Virtue of Politics.