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Robert L. McNeil, Jr.

Robert L. McNeil

CHF Collections, Photograph by Douglas A. Lockard

  • Born: July 13, 1915, Bethel, Connecticut
  • Died: May 20, 2010, Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0224
Interview Dates: August 13, 2001, August 30, 2001, and August 15, 2002
Locations: Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Barra Foundation, Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania; and
Interviewers: Arnold Thackray and Mary Ellen Bowden
No. of pages: 69
Minutes: 198
Sponsor: Rollin M. Gerstacker Foundation
Rollin M. Gerstacker Foundation

  Abstract of Interview

Robert L. McNeil, Jr. begins his interview by discussing his parent's heritage and the evolution of the Firm of Robert McNeil, the drugstore started by his grandfather. As young men, McNeil and his brother worked as errand boys for their father. During the summers, McNeil traveled, working on a ranch and as a camp counselor. McNeil attended high school at Germantown Academy, and went to Yale University to study physiological chemistry and bacteriology. After receiving his B.S. degree, he returned to Philadelphia. Subsequent to his grandfather's death, McNeil, at the young age of twenty, began his career in the family business, which by then had evolved into McNeil Laboratories, Inc., headed by his father, R. Lincoln McNeil.

By attending pharmaceutical conferences as well as enrolling in the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy's four-year program and Temple University's Graduate Pharmacy School course in pharmacology, under Professor James Munch, McNeil was able to gain the experience necessary to eventually head a successful pharmaceutical company. One of McNeil's first challenges was helping McNeil Laboratories update their manufacturing practices in keeping with the new Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938. With his strong knowledge of pharmacology, and the advice of many of the top men in Philadelphia's medical field, McNeil was able to introduce what would become some of the top-selling pharmaceuticals in the nation, including Butisol® and eventually Tylenol®.

While helping McNeil Laboratories to reach a new level of success, McNeil was on the board of many pharmaceutical organizations, and was the president of the Philadelphia Drug Exchange, as well as the Philadelphia branch of the American Pharmaceutical Association. McNeil also found time to marry and to help raise three children, along with a stepson from his wife's previous marriage. In 1959, McNeil Laboratories was sold to Johnson & Johnson and after a seven-year "transitional" period, McNeil retired and entered the venture capital field. He also devoted time to the study of our Colonial history and material culture and to the development of The Barra Foundation (originally named The Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Foundation). McNeil concludes his interview with a short comment on his views of the fast evolution of today's pharmaceutical field.


1936 B.S., Physiological Chemistry and BacteriologyPharmacyPharmacy, Yale University
1938 B.Sc., Pharmacy, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science
1970 D.Sc., Hon., Pharmacy, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science

  Professional Experience

McNeil Laboratories, Inc.

1936 - 1940 Research Chemist

McNeil Laboratories, Inc.

1940 - 1948 Director of Research Department

McNeil Laboratories, Inc.

1941 - 1956 Member of the Board of Directors

McNeil Laboratories, Inc.

1941 - 1956 Member of the Board of Directors

United States Army

1944 - 1946 Enlisted, Infantry and Signal Corps

Venture Capital and Service onNumerous Corporate Boards

1946 - Present Arrow International, Inc., Arrow Precision Products, Inc., Botfield Refractories, Chattanooga Group, Inc., Crescent Brick Co., Island Gem Enterprises, Johnson &, Johnson, McNeil Laboratories (Canada) Ltd., McNeil de Mexico S.A., Merrimac Clearance, Peter A. Frasse &, Co., Refractory Specialties Co.

McNeil Laboratories, Inc.

1949 - 1956 Vice President of Production and Development

E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

1950 - 1954 Research Chemist, Organic Chemicals Department

McNeil Laboratories, Inc.

1956 - 1964 Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer

The Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Foundation (renamed The Barra Foundation)

1964 - Present Founder and President

McNeil Laboratories Division of Johnson &, Johnson

1964 - 1966 Corporate Development


1938 Remington Memorial Prize, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science
1977 Member, American Antiquarian Society
1984 Fellow, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia
1985 Wallace Award, American-Scottish Foundation
2004 Fellow, American Philosophical Society
2005 Gold Medal, American Institute of Chemists

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

The Firm of Robert McNeil 1

Background of mother and father. Siblings. Grandfather starts the family drugstore business in 1879 in Philadelphia. Religious background. The Firm. Working in neighborhood hospital. Grandfather's stroke. Creation of McNeil Laboratories, Inc. Pharmacy era ending.

Childhood and Early Education 7

Errand boy as a young man. Summer experiences punching cattle in Montana and as a camp counselor. Skips third grade and enters Germantown Academy for fourth grade. Excels in high school sports.

College Years 9

The decision to go to Yale University. Sheffield Scientific School. College sports. Organic chemistry with Professor Robert Coghill. Father has two operations. Returns home. Enrolls at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy four-year degree program. Finishes in two years with distinction. Attends Temple University's Graduate Pharmacy School for pharmacology.

Career at McNeil Laboratories, Inc. 13

Living at home to help with family. Attends pharmaceutical conferences and meetings. Passing of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 has repercussions on pharmaceutical business. Complying with the 1938 laws. Relationship with father. Firm grows despite Depression. Development of Butisol®. Remaining in industry during World War II.

Growth of McNeil Laboratories after World War II 25

Continued growth and expansion. A new plant. Build up of research department to include pharmacologists and organic chemists. Adjunct professor for manufacturing course at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. Tylenol® trials and success.

Conclusion 38

Meeting the future Mrs. McNeil. Attending and presiding over various pharmaceutical conferences and meetings. Life in a family business. Johnson & Johnson buys McNeil Laboratories, Inc. Thoughts on pharmaceutical business today.

Notes 50

Addenda I 52

Letter from McNeil Laboratories, Inc. to Dr. Charles Gruber regarding the toxicological and pharmacological properties of Butisol®, and the Outline of Program for Butisol® Investigations; Status as of 25 August 1944.

Addenda II 55

Statement of Policy, The Barra Foundation, Inc.

Addenda III 56

Projects Revealing our American Culture and National Heritage (relating to the period 1750-1825), The Barra Foundation, Inc.

Addenda IV 59

Publications Sponsored by The Barra Foundation, Inc.

Index 62

  About the Interviewers

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

Mary Ellen Bowden

Mary Ellen Bowden, senior historian at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, has been associated with the institution since 1988. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Smith College and both a master’s of arts in teaching history and a doctorate in the history of science and medicine from Yale University.

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