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Lewis H. Sarett

  • Born: December 22, 1919, Champaign, Illinois
  • Died: November 29, 1999, Viola, Idaho
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  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0149
Interview Date: September 6, 1990
Location: Viola, Idaho
Interviewer: Leon B. Gortler
No. of pages: 65

  Abstract of Interview

Lewis Sarett begins this interview by telling of his early life in Wisconsin and Illinois, the influence of his father, his development of an interest in the outdoors, and some of his experience in college and graduate school. He then turns to his first assignment at Merck, the synthesis of cortisone. This is followed by a discussion of the efforts to discover a use for cortisone, the development of an economically viable synthesis of cortisone, and finally, the efforts to supply cortisone for public use. The next short section of the interview deals with his movement into managerial positions, and this is followed by a discussion of a number of drugs developed under his direction, including Decadron, Amprol, Thibenzol, Indocin, Dolobid, and Clinoril. Interspersed in the interview are comments on the Merck organization and on the various presidents, research directors, and colleagues with whom he worked. A significant section deals with his accomplishments as President of MSDRL and the problems he faced in this position. This is followed by a discussion of his last position at Merck, Vice President for Science and Technology. The interview concludes with talk of some of his work outside Merck, a description of his life in retirement, a comment on life in industry versus life in academia, and some words of advice for young scientists.


1939 B.S., Chemistry, Northwestern University
1942 Ph.D., Chemistry, Princeton University

  Professional Experience

Merck & Co., Inc.

1942 - 1948 Research Chemist

Merck & Co., Inc.

1948 - 1952 Assistant Director, Department of Organic Chemistry and Biomedical Research

Merck & Co., Inc.

1952 - 1956 Director, Medicinal Chemistry

Merck & Co., Inc.

1956 - 1962 Director, Department of Synthetic Chemistry

Merck & Co., Inc.

1962 - 1966 Executive Director, Fundamental Research

Merck & Co., Inc.

1966 - 1969 Vice President for Basic Research

Merck & Co., Inc.

1969 - 1976 President, Merk Sharp & Dohme Research Laboratories

Merck & Co., Inc.

1976 - 1982 Senior Vice President for Science and Technology

Merck & Co., Inc.

1982 Retired

Biotechnology Companies

1982 Director and Consultant


1951 Scientific Award, Merck Board of Directors
1951 Award of Merit, Northwestern Alumni Association
1951 Leo Hendrick Baekeland Award, American Chemical Society, New Jersey Section
1959 Julius W. Sturmer Memorial Lecture Award
1964 William Scheele Lecture Award, Royal Pharmaceutical Institute, Stockholm, Sweden
1964 Medal for Creative Research in Synthetic Organic Chemistry, Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association
1966 New Jersey Patent Award, New Jersey Council for Research and Development
1972 Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists
1972 D.Sc., Northwestern University
1975 National Medal of Science
1976 Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)
1977 D.Sc., Bucknell University
1977 Member, National Academy of Sciences
1980 Election to the National Inventors Hall of Fame
1980 Industrial Research Institute Medal
1981 Gold Medal Award, American Institute of Chemists
1982 Proctor Medal, Philadelphia Drug Exchange

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Family, Early Education, College 1

Father. Living in Wisconsin. High school in Illinois. Family support. Early interest in chemistry. Influence of Cornelius Osgood. Father's influence. Work in the west and interest in outdoors. Chess. Going to Northwestern University. Influence of chemistry faculty. Interest in mathematics. Choice of a graduate school. Wrestling in college.

Graduate School: Princeton 3

Choice of mentor: Everett Wallis. Chemists at Princeton. Research problem: Bromination of steroid ketones. Henry Eyring. Financial support. Completing degree. Going to work for Merck in cortisone program.

Merck: The Synthesis of Cortisone 5

First supervisor: Karl Folkers. First salary. First laboratory in 50G. Working with E. C. Kendall at Mayo Clinic. Return to Rahway. Failure to prove Kendall's introduction of oxygen at C-11. Threat to job. Proving Kendall wrong. The synthesis of cortisone. Identity with natural product. Supply of intermediates from Development Group. Lectures by Louis Fieser. Continued communication with Kendall. Consulting with Jack Lane, Everett Wallis, and Karl Folkers. Learning chromatography from Eric Stiller. The Committee of 14. Contact with Randolph Major.

Merck: More Cortisone 12

Effect of the Upjohn microbiological oxidation of C-11. Merck synthesis of cortisone economically viable. Introduction of Decadron. Hench discovery of effect of cortisone on arthritis. Search for alternative methods for making cortisone. Work on the "total" synthesis of cortisone. Searching for a use for cortisone: Supplying clinicians with cortisone. Crash program to produce abundant supplies of cortisone. John Chemerda. The cyanohydrin method for synthesizing cortisone side chain. Division between Research and Development. Purpose of the "total" synthesis effort. Effort to supply sufficient cortisone; problems.

Merck 15

Responsibilities as Assistant Director of Organic Research. Karl Folkers. Co-workers. Turnover of personnel. Director of Medicinal Research: Circumstances leading to appointment. Offers of academic appointments. Transition to medicinal chemistry. Co-workers. Per Frolich. Constant expectations of Merck management. Isolation of aldosterone. Decision making about research problems. Interdisciplinary approach. Al Zeissig. Merger with Sharp & Dohme.

Merck: Steroid Anti-inflammatories 20

Director of Synthetic Organic Chemistry: A change in title. Dexamethasone. Competition from Schering: Prednisone. Glen Arth. Charles Winter. Schering synthesis of a 16-methyl compound: A patent problem. Production of injectible anti-inflammatory.

Animal Drugs 23

Amprolium: Ed Rogers. The stealing of amprolium: Robert Aries. Thiabendazole: Horace Brown. Success through Folkers' vitamin program. Relationship of Synthetic Chemistry with Therapeutic Institute.

Non-steroidal Anti-infammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) 26

Decision to seek non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. Karl Folkers. T. Y. Shen. The search for NSAIDs. Indocin. Clinical problems with Indocin.

Merck: Organization 29

Reporting to Denkewalter. Becoming Executive Director of Fundamental Research: Responsibilities. Promotion to Vice President. Presidents of Merck & Co.: George Merck, James Kerrigan, Jack Connor. Changes affected by the Kefauver-Harris amendments. Henry Gadsden. Randolph Major: Mission. Max Tishler: Energy, intellect, style.

Micellaneous, Dolobid, Clinoril 33

Prenisolone attached to a glycoside. Ralph Hirschmann. Ribonuclease. Changing management. Dolobid: Impetus to find a better aspirin. Dr. Bauer. Clinoril. Synthesizing 5-fluorophenylsalicylic acid. Clinical testing failure in Japan. Synthesizing Dolobid: Al Matzuk. Clinical testing of Dolobid. Clinoril: T. Y. Shen. Charles Winter. Sarett's reagent.

President of MSDRL 39

Goals: Improving the Medical Division; improving interdivision relationships; getting into the anti-biotic field. Fosfomycin and cefoxitin. Finding new drugs. Drugs for well people. Benign prostatic hypertrophy: Glen Arth and the origins of Proscar. Start of Mevacor: Al Alberts and Roy Vagelos. Hunting for successor as President. Organizational training. Dearth of products: Changing the organization. Diversification. David Jacobus. The Pfister-Denkewalter affair. Sarett threat to leave Merck in early 1960s. Organization after Pfister-Denkewalter.

Vice President for Science and Technology 48

Leaving research. Nature of new job. Attempt to buy Genentech. Feelings about new position; comparison with Max Tishler. Attempt to establish new research unit. Corporate long-range planning. Establishing Japan connection. Changing FDA attitude.

Other Positions 50

Serving on Reagan transition team. Reagan's attitude toward science. United Nations Panel. Offer of position as Director of National Institutes of Health.

Postscripts 51

Leaving Merck in 1982. Building home in Idaho. Career rewards. Children. Academic versus industry positions. Changing attitudes towards industry. Rewards of industry. Serving on boards of small biotechnology companies. Choosing Idaho. Other activitities: Gardening, golf, chess. Advice for young scientists.

Notes 56

Index 58

  About the Interviewer

Leon B. Gortler

Leon Gortler is a professor of chemistry at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He holds A.B. and M.S. degrees from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from Harvard University where he worked with Paul Bartlett. He has long been interested in the history of chemistry, in particular the development of physical organic chemistry, and has conducted over fifty oral and videotaped interviews with major American chemists.

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