Robert L. McNeil, Jr., Chemist Who Introduced Tylenol, Dies at 94

June 3, 2010 - New York, NY

From the New York Times, June 3, 2010
By Natasha Singer


Robert L. McNeil Jr., a pharmaceutical executive who introduced Tylenol in 1955 as a competitor to aspirin for pain relief, died on May 20 at his home in Wyndmoor, Pa. He was 94.

The cause was heart failure, said his public relations adviser, John Moscatelli.

Mr. McNeil was the third generation of his family to work at the company that became McNeil Laboratories, which was founded in 1879 by his grandfather as a pharmacy in Philadelphia.

During his tenure the firm introduced the first Tylenol product, Elixir Tylenol, as a liquid children’s medicine to reduce pain and fever. Its marketing campaign included a cartoon fire engine and the slogan “For little hotheads.”

Johnson & Johnson bought the firm in 1959. Mr. McNeil was the chairman of Johnson & Johnson’s McNeil subsidiary until 1964.

Johnson & Johnson’s McNeil Consumer Healthcare unit has been in the news recently after it recalled more than 136 million bottles of liquid children’s Tylenol and other pediatric products on April 30 because of quality control problems at a company plant.

Mary Ellen Bowden, a senior research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation who worked with Mr. McNeil on an essay about his contribution to the pharmaceutical industry, said she wondered how he had taken the news of the recall by the Johnson & Johnson unit that still bears his family’s name.

“You could count on McNeil because they could make the preparations correctly,” she said. “That’s what the company had prided itself on for generations.”

Robert Lincoln McNeil Jr. was born on July 13, 1915, in Bethel, Conn., to Robert Lincoln McNeil and Grace Slack McNeil. He grew up in the Germantown area of Philadelphia.

Mr. McNeil graduated from Yale in 1936 with a bachelor of science degree in physiological chemistry and bacteriology. Two years later he completed a second bachelor’s degree at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, now called the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. He began his career with a part-time job in 1936 at his family’s firm, and became a full-time employee in 1938.

Mr. McNeil set about turning the family drug business into a modern pharmaceutical company. He re-evaluated the product line, reorganized the company’s structure and established a research division to develop prescription drugs that would comply with the safety requirements of the newly enacted Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, according to the essay about Mr. McNeil, which appeared in the book “Pharmaceutical Achievers,” published by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Although the active ingredient in Tylenol was discovered in the 19th century, it was not until the mid-20th century that scientists deemed the drug safe and effective. Even then, many drug companies did not pursue the medicine lest it compete with their existing aspirin products.

Mr. McNeil, who had heard about the drug at a pharmaceutical conference, urged his company to pursue the medicine because McNeil did not sell its own aspirin products.

He told doubters at McNeil that though the new drug would be more expensive, it had an advantage over aspirin in that it did not cause stomach irritation. Mr. McNeil gave Tylenol its generic name, acetaminophen.

Approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Tylenol went on the market as a prescription medication in 1955. It became an over-the-counter drug in 1960.

Mr. McNeil was named chairman of McNeil in 1956. That year, he also married Nancy McKinney Jones. She survives him, as do his sons, Collin and Robert L. McNeil III; his daughters, Victoria McNeil Le Vine and Joanna McNeil Lewis; and 11 grandchildren, all of the Philadelphia area.

After his retirement, Mr. McNeil pursued philanthropic causes, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Zoo, where he paid to renovate the birdhouse, now known as the McNeil Avian Center. Two science centers at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia also bear his name.

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