Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 1993 | Features

The Long and Short of Shorty Paul

By Dan Prescher
Here's a short course on how to remember Dr. William D. "Shorty" Paul:

  1. Think back to almost any Hawkeye football or basketball game between 1940 and 1971. The pint-sized guy on the sidelines ordering the towering young man in uniform to quit whining and get back in the game is Shorty Paul, team doctor.
  2. Enroll in the UI College of Medicine. Depending on the specialty you choose, you'll hear about Dr. William Paul's pioneering work in rheumatology, internal medicine, rehabilitative medicine, sports medicine, the diagnostic use of endoscopy and cardiography, or the medicinal use of insulin and curare.
  3. Look in your medicine cabinet or purse. If you carry a buffered pain reliever or a roll of antacids, you can thank Shorty Paul.
  4. Talk to almost any Iowa City native over 40 years old. Around this town, Shorty Paul stories are as common as a sweat-drenching day in August.
William D. Paul

William D. Paul was born on the last day of the first month of the current century, the son of Polish immigrants in Brooklyn, New York. He studied biochemistry at New York's Polytechnic School, then went to the University of Cincinnati for his undergraduate and medical degrees. After marrying Louise Ebeling, Paul came to Iowa City in 1930 for what was supposed to be a one-year residency at University Hospital. He died in Iowa City in 1977, 47 years later.

Paul spent his career in academic medicine, where he was known for his aggressive, inquisitive style. It was a manner that he adapted to both research and patient care.

Dottie Ray, a longtime neighbor of the Pauls, recalls a story that exemplifies Paul's bedside manner.

"I remember an occasion when an older man who'd had a leg broken complained to Dr. Paul about the pain and inconvenience it caused him. Shorty apparently had a couple of his football players load the man onto a gurney and wheel him down the hospital hallway to the polio ward. That straightened him out in short order."

Such direct methods were a trademark of Shorty Paul. With his 4-foot, 9-inch stature, he would have been noticed in any case, but his fame was assured when, in 1944, he came up with a concoction that would become a household word.

As a specialist in rheumatology, Paul was especially concerned with relieving the pain his patients endured. While aspirin could lessen the discomfort of arthritis, some patients' stomachs couldn't tolerate the acidity of the drug. When Paul's colleague and head hospital dietitian Dr. Kate Daum complained of a headache, he suggested she take aspirin, but Daum said her stomach wouldn't like it.

As it happened, Paul had just received a batch of a new antacid from a colleague at another institution. When he mixed that with aspirin and gave the result to Daum, she reported her headache gone, with no upset stomach.

1950s ad for Bufferin

The mixture worked so well, in fact, that Paul began using the combination with his arthritis patients. At the time, he was also working with Bristol-Meyers on combining antacid with penicillin for the oral treatment of gonorrhea. When the company learned about his buffered aspirin compound, they funded a two-year study at the UI. By 1945, the product was ready for the market.

"We all sat around the table wondering what to call it," Paul said in a 1969 interview, "and everybody was talking about 'buffering.' Then somebody skipped the 'g' and said 'bufferin.' That was the name."

About the same time, Paul and another colleague conceived of an antacid in tablet form that could be sold over the counter. Rolaids was the result.

Though products such as Bufferin and Rolaids would make millions for a researcher and his or her institution today, Paul realized no personal gain from his discoveries--and the UI received only $5,000, when Bristol-Meyers funded a study conducted on campus.

If the world is acquainted with Shorty Paul, it is almost certainly because of his development of buffered aspirin. But in and around the University of Iowa, Paul is remembered most often as the physician who attended UI sports teams. As on colleague, Dr. Theodore N. Thomas, put it in a testimonial to Paul, "In spite of a distinguished scientific career that included hundreds of published articles in scientific journals, offices in numerous professional societies, development of new medicines, and pioneering work in surgery, gastroenterology, and diabetes therapy, the first sentence in Paul's obituary in the Iowa City Press-Citizen identified has as the 'University of Iowa football and basketball team physician.'"

This slant on his reputation might not have bothered Paul. He loved sports and earned his nickname "Shorty" from the contrast of his diminutive frame with the strapping athletes he tended, a duty for which he accepted no pay. "It's satisfying," he said in 1968. "I'm mixed up with young people and I can help them to accomplish some of their goals. If a boy is having a problem at home or some very personal problem, I'll know about it, where the coaches won't."

Although Paul's concern for his young charges appears obvious, part of his legend comes from the fact that he wrapped his caring nature in a crusty exterior. As a team doctor, he recognized a clear distinction between pain and injury, and he made sure his athletes knew the difference, too.

Bill Windauer, former professional football player and now a director of development with the UI Foundation, played defensive tackle under coaches Ray Nagel and Frank Lauterbur from 1968 to 1972.

"Shorty would cuss you up and down if he thought you were slacking off," says Windauer. "If he didn't think you were hurt, he'd let you know in no uncertain terms. He really had a heart of gold, but it wasn't easy to see it sometimes."

Forest Evashevski, coach of the Hawkeye football team from 1952 to 1960, agrees that Paul could be abrasive. But he also asserts that people who didn't know Paul could misread him.

"When it was cold on the field," Evashevski said, "Shorty's fingers would literally turn white from the first knuckle down. He had poor circulation and, because of this, he couldn't walk fast. So if a kid got hurt on the field, Shorty would saunter out, and people would say, 'He's not even hurrying. He doesn't care if the kid's hurt or not.' But Shorty cared.

"Shorty was a guy with a tough front, but he was soft underneath. I just had great respect for him. He was great to work with, although many people couldn't understand how that could be. We got along because I said, 'I'll do the coaching and you do the doctoring." He never told me how to coach, and I never put a kid back in unless Shorty said it was OK."

Evashevski remembers one incident especially that summed up Paul's sideline philosophy.

"A kid was knocked out on a play, and when he came over to the sideline Shorty told him right away, 'Ah, you're all right.' Then he walked over to me and said quietly, "Evy, don't scrimmage him until I look him over."

Perhaps Paul's greatest contribution was the practical application of what he learned through research and experience. Through his work in rehabilitation and his research and publications on the effectiveness of training regimes, he was instrumental in making sports medicine respectable. He was also a main force behind the UI's physical therapy graduate program, then known as the School of Physical Therapy, serving as its head and subsequently as director of the Rehabilitation Unit of University Hospitals.

William Paul was expert at making connections and, as Evashevski says, Paul made one connection 30 years ago that is just being demonstrated today.

"Bill Reed, the big Ten commissioner, had severe arthritis. I told him to let Shorty take a look at him. Shorty said to Bill, 'There's no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but if you take the medication and do what we tell you, you'll be OK. The good news is, you probably won't ever have a heart attack.'

"Later, I asked Shorty why on earth he'd talked about heart attacks.

"Shorty said, 'I don't know why, but very few of my arthritis patients have heart attacks. I think it's the Bufferin.' This was 30 years ago. Shorty was thinking about aspirin preventing heart attacks way back then."

Paul made his mark on UI history in more ways than one, or even two or three. If for nothing else, some Iowa Citians will remember him as the man who walked his white poodle every day through University Heights. But chances are good that the Shorty Paul people remember will be only a part of the whole. For such a tiny man, William D. Paul had more sides to him than you could count.