In the 1920s, Wisconsin researchers raced to find the source of an epidemic affecting cattle. Cattle were bleeding to death after minor injuries incurred in routine procedures, such as castration. Researchers discovered a link between a certain type of moldy hay and the strange deaths, and eventually extracted a compound they called dicoumarol, which caused a dangerous and potentially lethal thinning of the blood in cows that consumed it.
Further researched led to a commercial application. In 1948, Warfarin, named after the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, came onto the market as a rat poison. The poison was very effective on rodents. The pleasant scent attracted them, and because it wasn't immediately lethal, they weren't afraid to eat enough to kill them.
But the very property that made Warfarin such an effective means to kill rodents meant that it had potential for other applications, such as treating hypertension in human beings. When a man tried to commit suicide by ingesting Warfarin, doctors were able to successfully save his life by giving him an infusion of vitamin K. It was a remarkable breakthrough, demonstrating that the negative effects of the poison could be reversed. It meant that doctors could use the poison to save lives. One of the first human recipients of the new drug, renamed Coumadin, was President Dwight David Eisenhower, who was treated with the drug after suffering a heart attack.
Coumadin is still in service, improving the lives of millions of people who suffer from heart ailments. Thanks to years of tireless efforts, researchers were able to take a disaster for cattle ranchers and turn it into a lifesaving therapy that continues to improve lives today.
The story of Warfarin underscores the vital role played by our colleges and universities, and the necessity of insuring every student graduates from high school with a strong foundation in math and science. Modern life, with all its advantages, is only possible thanks to the contribution of engineers, chemists, physicists, and mathematicians. Innovation is not just the lifeblood of a strong economy. It is the only way to move forward, solving the problems that threaten our environment and our way of life. If we want to continue to enjoy the comforts afforded to us by technology, we are going to need fresh young minds to solve the emerging problems plaguing the modern world.
Sir Isaac Newton once said, "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." The story of Warfarin shows us how important it is to keep climbing. If we give our sons and daughters the tools with strong math and science curricula, they will see farther than even Newton could imagine.