Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

William P. Murphy Jr., MD: Physician-inventor

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Blood unit during transfusion. Photo by SantyBoyMX on Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

“…An unqualified success.”
– Dr. Murphy on the testing of blood bags during the Korean War

It is perhaps no coincidence that the son of the physician who revolutionized the treatment of pernicious anemia should likewise have been an inventor. By the time he died in 2023 at the age of 100, Dr. William P. Murphy Jr. held seventeen US patents, including those for an implantable pacemaker, a hemodialysis machine, vascular catheters, single-use medical procedural trays, and vinyl bags for storing and transporting blood. As a perceptive physician, he saw what medical and surgical tools and devices were needed, and as a creative bio-medical engineer, he invented them.

His father shared the 1934 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, after demonstrating that eating raw liver improved pernicious (or macrocytic, vitamin B-12 deficiency) anemia. His mother, Harriet Adams Murphy, was also illustrious, becoming the first woman dentist in Massachusetts.

Born in Boston, Murphy Jr. earned his MD degree at the University of Illinois in 1947. He then spent a year studying engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1950 the US Army asked him, while he was working on a dialysis machine, to devise a better method of storing and shipping blood for transfusion than the glass bottles then in use. Together with Dr. Carl Walter (1905–1992), he produced a flexible, durable, inexpensive bag made of polyvinyl chloride that also protected the blood it contained from contact with air. Murphy supervised the testing of “bagged” blood for transfusions on the battlefield in 1952 during the Korean War, with good results.

Within a few years, the blood bag system he invented was in worldwide use. He continued inventing and refining his inventions throughout his long life. He should be added to the list of contributors to the advancement of twentieth-century medicine.


  • “William P. Murphy Jr.” Wikipedia.
  • Robert McFadden. “William P. Murphy Jr., innovator of life-saving medical tools, dies at 100.” New York Times, December 5, 2023.
  • Lemelson–MIT Program. “Dr. William P. Murphy, Jr.: 2003 winner of the Lemelson–MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for invention and innovation.” 2003.

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Winter 2024



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