Pure Genius

From World War II hero to expert on blood-thinning drugs

From World War II hero to expert on blood-thinning drugs

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Before Dr. Harry Messmore was an internationally-known doctor and drug researcher, he was a U.S. Army volunteer who moved up the ranks to lead an important World War II mission in France.

Before Dr. Harry Messmore was an internationally-known doctor and drug researcher, he was a U.S. Army volunteer who moved up the ranks to lead an important World War II mission in France. Messmore received the Bronze Star Medal for his service in 1944 and now -- 66 years later -- is also gaining recognition from France.

When we spoke last week, Messmore looked back on his time in the war and on his career as an oncologist and hematologist specializing in research of the blood-thinning drug Heparin.

Talk about your service during World War II that resulted in you winning this award.

France started this awarding of the Legion of Honor to World War II veterans who fought in France who had already received a [U.S] Army medal. It is, of course, 66 years after the fact. I got the Bronze Star Medal from the [U.S] Army in December 1944 following a military engagement with the Germans along the southern coast of Brittany. Germans had 15 different large pillboxes (bunkers) set up to protect the entrance to the river. [German] u-boats were coming in to refuel and get more supplies. They had to have protection. The pillboxes were set up for that purpose. Our purpose was to knock out those pillboxes. I had the military responsibility for training and commanding troops firing cannon. I was ordered to go back to the French coast. There were three special types of cannon dropped off on the beach by the U.S. Navy. I went back there with my men and picked up [the] cannon for firing up at the pillboxes up on this rocky shore.

I followed pathways onto the rocky hills, hiding behind bushes and trees to look at where the pillboxes were. I put little white pieces of cloth on bushes all the way back down, so when I brought my troops up we could find our way in the dark. The [cannon] each weighed two tons and they were pulled by hand -- each one pulled in by 10 men. They were put in places I marked the day before. We would have to wait until dawn. The pillboxes were neutralized by the fire of [our] artillery. This completely took the Germans by surprise. Fifty-four Germans surrendered. Three weeks later, there was a general order sent out from my division awarding Harry Messmore the Bronze Star.

When did you become a physician?

After five years of military service, I was discharged in February 1946. I graduated from the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago in 1952 and served an internship in Detroit until 1953. I went to practice for 11 years among the old order Amish community of central Illinois. Then I decided I wanted to be a specialist. I came up to Chicago and took four more years of training to become a hematology-oncology specialist. I also had a research interest in blood-thinning drugs. That research went from about 1972 to even the present time. I'm still doing research on that although I retired from active clinical practice at Loyola [University Health System] in 1992. I have remained as a volunteer consultant. I still have a small research laboratory at Hines VA Hospital. I have been blind for the last three years due to macular degeneration and glaucoma -- I have both. I'm still able to do my research by having people in the library and my granddaughters and other people read medical journals to me and read my email. I keep mentally active.

What made you want to be a physician?

My father was a veterinarian taking care of large animals. He graduated from the Chicago Veterinary College 100 years ago this year. When I was in the third grade, my teacher said, 'You should be a doctor.' That's how I got the idea. When I was coming back from my duties in France in World War II they happened to assign me to a ship that had nothing on it but a medical detachment who was in Germany for a field hospital for wounded soldiers. I had a 10-day trip with them coming back. One of the doctors on the ship said, 'You're getting into medicine too late. They exciting part is already over. Whatever can be learned has already been learned.' Another guy there said, 'There's a long way to go.'

Heparin, one of my main research objects, was first used clinically in the 1940s. I got into it early and had the chance to do lots of research on Heparin.

Image, top: Harry Messmore during World War II

Image, bottom: Dr. Harry Messmore, current

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure