The Philanthropist in the Pharmacy

Robert McNeil

Robert McNeil.

Pharmaceuticals hold a special place in Robert McNeil’s family. His grandfather started a neighborhood drugstore in the late 19th century; his father created McNeil Laboratories out of that drugstore in the early 1930s; and McNeil himself, who as a child ran errands for the family firm, grew up to become chairman of the company’s board.

McNeil, who died this year at the age of 94, spent his working life in pharmacology. The beginning of his career at McNeil Laboratories coincided with the establishment of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. It continued with the development of Tylenol and carried on even after McNeil Laboratories was sold to Johnson & Johnson.

McNeil’s initial interests lay in research, and he studied physiological chemistry and bacteriology at Yale—in between working summer jobs at a cattle ranch, a hotel, and a summer camp. At the age of 20, after his grandfather’s death, McNeil joined the family firm. To give himself a better grounding in the business, he studied pharmacology at Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Temple University. One of his first tasks at McNeil Laboratories was to ensure that the company’s manufacturing processes complied with the 1938 FDA act, which focused on drug safety following a previously laissez-faire approach to drug regulation. McNeil described those years as a time when “pharmacology was coming of age and . . . therapeutics and pharmaceutical products had to be based on pharmacology, [including] toxicology and the necessary human studies to ensure safety for use.”

During World War II the government considered pharmacology vital to the war effort, and McNeil spent the war working for the family company, which became one of the first to distribute penicillin for the war effort when that drug became available in 1943. After the war, as research director, he focused on building up McNeil Laboratories’ research efforts, which led to the formulation of Tylenol.

The discovery of Tylenol’s active ingredient, acetaminophen, dates to the 19th century, but only in the late 1940s did scientists prove its usefulness in reducing fevers. However, since aspirin dominated that market, pharmaceutical companies showed little interest—except for McNeil Laboratories. McNeil found a market for the new drug by creating a safe “Tylenol Elixir” for sick children. The drug received FDA approval in 1955 as a prescription-only medication and in 1961 appeared in tablet form. Those years were busy ones for McNeil, so much so that he said he was “ready to drop dead.”

In 1959 McNeil and his brother sold their company to Johnson & Johnson. McNeil remained chairman for several years to ensure a smooth transfer of ownership. Then a second life followed that of pharmacology—philanthropy. In 1964 McNeil founded the Barra Foundation, which funds arts, culture, health, and education projects in the Philadelphia area.

McNeil received the 2005 American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal for his work on acetaminophen. He considered himself lucky in his pharmaceutical career, one that began for him in the “horse and buggy days of pharmacology.” Those who have benefited from his philanthropy feel equally lucky that the success of his first line of work permitted his second.

Hilary Domush is a program associate in the oral history program in CHF’s Center for Contemporary History and Policy. Crysta Jentile was a summer intern with Chemical Heritage.