In 1926, George Richards Minot unwittingly set the stage for millions of
dinnertime fights between mothers and children.
In that year, Minot and his partner William P. Murphy proved conclusively
that liver is, in fact, good for you. The discovery that liver could cure
pernicious anemia, which at the time killed thousands annually, led to a 1934
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the pair. They shared the award with
George Hoyt Whipple, the physician whose early experiments with animals first
showed that liver could counteract the effects of anemia.
Born in 1885 to leading Boston physician James Jackson Minot and his wife
Elizabeth Whitney, Minot was born into one of the oldest families in the
country and one of the most prominent families in New England.
James Jackson Minot was a private practitioner and staff member at
Massachusetts General Hospital the hospital co-founded in 1821 by his
grandfather, James Jackson. Jackson also was the second Hersey Professor of the
Theory and Practice of Physic at Harvard.
Minots great uncle, Francis Minot, was the third Hersey Professor. His
cousin, Charles Sedgwick Minot, was a leading anatomist and a Harvard
Despite coming from a medical family, Minot was apparently less than
confident about his ability to handle the busy life of a doctor. But he
dutifully entered Harvard Medical School and earned his MD in 1912.
During his time as a medical student and later during his internship at
Massachusetts General Hospital, Minot developed a serious interest in blood
disorders and pernicious anemia.
He began keeping precise records of the eating habits of his patients with
anemia. An entry in the Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of
Sciences suggests that it was Minots familial interest in nutrition that
caused him to focus so intently on his patients diets.
Minot completed his internship at Johns Hopkins University from 1913 to 1915
under the tutelage of William Sydney Thayer and William Henry Howell. It was
then that Minot and George Denny, MD, another young Bostonian, published a
paper establishing that circulatory stasis during perfusion of a dogs
liver produced an increase in the antithrombin content of the blood in the
hepatic vein. Their research played a crucial role in Howells development
of heparin three years later.
In 1915, Minot returned to his native Boston to take appointments at Harvard
and Massachusetts General. Later that year he would marry Marian Linzee Weld.
The couple had two daughters, Marian and Elizabeth, and a son, Charles.
Minots health took a serious turn for the worse in October 1921 when
he was diagnosed with diabetes. He struggled to make it to the hospital
throughout a year of illness, dietary restrictions and weight loss until the
availability of insulin in 1923 saved his life.
From then on, Minot weighed and measured all this food at home and when
dining out, demanded advance knowledge of the menu so he could estimate
calories and carbohydrates before ordering.
Shortly before his diagnosis, Minot accepted the invitation of Edwin A.
Locke, MD, and joined a small group of physicians in private practice. One of
the doctors who eventually joined the group was William P. Murphy.
The story behind the defeat of anemia began in 1918, 3,000 miles away at San
Franciscos Hooper Foundation. There, George Hoyt Whipple was exploring
how different foods affected hemoglobin production in animals.
Five years later, as a professor of pathology and dean of the University of
Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York, Whipple and Frieda
Robscheit-Robbins, MD, showed that an animals bone marrow increased
hemoglobin production in response to chronic anemia, but only in the presence
of such foods as liver and spinach.
In 1922, building on Whipples experiments, Minot began trying to
improve the eating habits of his private patients with pernicious anemia with
Murphys help. He ordered a diet rich in iron and purine
derivatives, containing 100 grams to 240 grams of liver, 120 grams of muscle
meat, leafy vegetables, especially lettuce and spinach, fruit and egg and
It took three years, but Minot eventually got some of his patients to eat
the optimal amount of lightly cooked liver more than a half
pound each day.
Patients on Minots diet recovered rapidly, with many showing
improvement after only a few days. Later examination of patients blood
showed newly formed reticulocytes, demonstrating the diets efficacy.
Minot and Murphy presented the results of their liver cure to the
Association of American Physicians in May 1926, although it appears those in
attendance did not immediately appreciate the import of the moment.
A year later, Minot began working with Harvard chemist Edwin J. Cohn, PhD,
to isolate the active ingredient in liver. The pair identified
water-soluble vitamin B, but it was not until 1948 that researchers
in the United States and Great Britain pinpointed vitamin B12 as the crucial
compound. That discovery meant that what had been a fatal disease could be
treated with monthly injections of 30 mcg to 100 mcg of cyanocobalamin.
The liver treatment would lead to Minots greatest professional success
when he, along with Murphy and Whipple, won the Nobel Prize but he
stayed busy in the interim.
Minot became member of the Board of Consultation at Massachusetts General in
1927. A year later, he succeeded his friend and mentor Francis W. Peabody as
director of the Thorndike Memorial Laboratory at Boston City Hospital, became
chief of the hospitals Fourth Harvard Medical Service and was named a
senior professor at Harvard.
Minot would take over the Second Medical Service in 1930, but he would turn
over both clinics to his colleague, Soma Weiss, MD, two years later.
Although he is best known for the development of liver therapy and his
research into anemia and other blood disorders, Minots greatest influence
may have come during his 20-year stint as director of the Thorndike. More than
400 young physicians served there under his tutelage.
Minot built a reputation for his willingness to encourage and consult
younger physicians at Thorndike. He would mold the institution into one of the
nations premier research facilities before retiring in 1948 as his health
Minot began suffering from complications related to diabetes in the early
1940s. A stroke in 1947 left his left side paralyzed and confined him to a
wheelchair until his death in 1950. by Jason Harris
For more information:
- Castle W.B. George Richards Minot, 1885-1950. National Academy of Sciences;
Biographical Memoirs, 1974.
- Jacovino N. Red-blooded doctors cure anemia. The Harvard University
Gazette. The Harvard Gazette website.
Published January 22, 1998. Accessed March 3, 2008.
- Minot, George Richards 1885-1950. Papers 1908-1951: A finding aid. The
Harvard University Library website.
December 8, 2004. Accessed March 3, 2008.