By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — For an example of entrepreneurship, you could do a lot worse than the story of Dr. Edward Kendall.
Never heard of him?
Don’t worry. Most people haven’t. But Dr. Thom Rooke of the Mayo Clinic has, and he found his story so compelling that he wrote a book about it.
Rooke was the morning keynote speaker at the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation’s Entrepreneurial Bridge conference Tuesday at Verizon Wireless Center. The conference featured speakers and sessions for people interested in getting started down the entrepreneurial path or to energize or refresh the efforts of current entrepreneurs.
The role of Rooke’s presentation was to give people a peek at a story that illustrates the determined spirit of successful entrepreneurs.
Luckily, Rooke has just written a book on the topic. Not the topic of entrepreneurship per se, but on a man whose story embodies the kind of struggles many face as they try to convince people they’ve got a good idea.
Rooke’s latest book is called “The Quest for Cortisone” and chronicles the unorthodox journey of chemist Kendall.
He was, according to his biographer, a bit of a loner. After college he went to work for pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis. After a year he left and went to work for St. Luke’s Hospital in New York. After a short time, he left that job, too. He just didn’t like the work, he told a friend. He then tried to get a job at the Rockefeller Institute, telling the founder he wants to do work for him studying adrenal glands. The founder says no and sends him on his way.
So he found his way west, to Minnesota, and the Mayo Clinic. It so happened Charles Mayo had by that time — around 1900 — become one of the world’s leading thyroid surgeons. Kendall interviewed for a job and was rejected by the clinic’s board of governors. But Charles Mayo liked him and hired him anyway. In a few years he’d be nominated for a Nobel Prize in science for his thyroid research. But he lost.
He spent the next 10 years working on a synthetic form of thyroxine. By 1926, someone beat him to it. So he and everyone else stopped their pursuit. Another setback.
In the meantime, he’d developed a sketchy reputation in the medical community. Twice he was published in medical journals saying he’d made dramatic discoveries. Both times it turned out he was wrong.
In 1929, a researcher named Albert Szent-Györgyi contacted Kendall, saying he wanted to temporarily join the Mayo staff to conduct research on adrenal glands of cows. He’d hoped that Mayo’s proximity to meat-packing plants would give him access to large quantities of cow glands.
He came, set up a cow gland extraction operation and conducted his research. When he left, he asked Kendall if he wanted to join him in his research. Kendall said no. A short time later, Szent-Györgyi went on to win the Nobel prize for his research. Another setback for Kendall.
But Szent-Györgyi did Kendall a favor. The gland extraction lab he’d set up remained in place, and Kendall began using it for his own work.
Mayo, though, was growing impatient with Kendall and brought in another chemist to share oversight of the lab. And Kendall continued his scientific pursuits. He was even among a group of 14 chemists charged with coming up with a synthetic cortin. They failed. Another setback.
Elsewhere in the science world, a chemist for Merck discovers a complicated way to manufacture cortin, but there’s no real use for it yet, and it’s extremely expensive.
Kendall, meanwhile, strikes a deal with Parke-Davis to have thousands of adrenal glands sent to him. So he puts Szent-Györgyi’s equipment to work trying to extract whatever else he can from those glands, including adrenaline, which was a lucrative venture.
Around this time, another doctor came to work with Kendall, a man who contributions would finally push Kendall to the recognition that had eluded him for decades.
Philip Hench, a tall, meticulous man who would go on to marry into the well-heeled Kahler family of Rochester, observed that his patients with rheumatoid arthritis experienced a remission during an attack of jaundice. He deduced there was something in the body that occurred naturally that helps arthritis, something that gets broken down by the liver.
After consulting with Kendall, they wondered if that mystery chemical was cortin, the discovery made by Merck that, at the time, they had not use for.
Then, the perfect patient presented herself to test that. She had rheumatoid arthritis and told medical staff at Mayo that she wasn’t leaving until she was cured. They gave her cortin and within a few days her improvement was dramatic. Within a month, though, she’d experienced a bout of extreme mental instability. They pulled back her dosage, and she improved and ultimately left.
They let other rheumatologists test cortin on their patients, and they found great success. They went public with it, and in 1950, Kendall and Hench won the Nobel Prize. Finally.
Kendall an entrepreneur? Perhaps not in the traditional business sense. But his story is one that entrepreneurs can relate to. He was one bad decision away from winning a Nobel Prize twice before he finally won.
But he kept on going. Never gave up. Even when Mayo wasn’t thrilled with his work.
“If you’re never in the doghouse,” Rooke said, “you’re not trying hard enough.”