In 1879, 23-year-old Robert McNeil, who had recently graduated from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, paid $167 for a fully outfitted drugstore that would soon bear his name. McNeil undoubtedly hoped that the store’s soda fountain would prove as much a draw to the residents of Philadelphia’s Kensington section as the medicines he planned to make and sell, but he could hardly have imagined that a drug stamped with the McNeil name would one day be the first choice for pain and fever relief in millions of homes and hospitals worldwide.
Today that drug, Tylenol, is a bona fide blockbuster, with combined annual sales of its various formulations totaling over $1 billion annually for McNeil-PPC and its parent company, Johnson & Johnson. Directing the creation of Tylenol products in the early 1950s was Robert L. “Bob” McNeil Jr., grandson of that Philadelphia druggist and member of the Yale College Class of 1936. While earning his undergraduate degree at Yale, Bob had trekked across campus to the Department of Physiological Chemistry at the School of Medicine to take graduate-level courses under the wing of renowned researcher George R. Cowgill, Ph.D., an authority on the human requirements for vitamin B1 (now known as thiamin) and other aspects of human nutrition. He also came in contact with pharmacologists Louis S. Goodman, M.D. and Alfred Gilman, Ph.D., who as assistant professors at the School of Medicine authored the magnum opus The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics—a classic textbook that, in its 12th revised edition, is still the universal reference book in the field.
McNeil, former chairman of the board of McNeil Laboratories, looks back fondly on his formative years in Sterling Hall of Medicine, and he has generously memorialized these Yale faculty members with recent gifts to the School of Medicine that total $8 million. The gifts will endow a George R. Cowgill Professorship, designated for a top School of Medicine educator with expertise in physiological chemistry, and a Yale Scholar endowment named in honor of Goodman and Gilman. The Yale Scholars program is a recent initiative of Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., which awards four years of research funding to the most promising new researchers recruited at the medical school.
“I have wanted to help the medical school in any way I can. I’m especially excited about Yale’s leadership in translational research, including its recognition with the Clinical and Translational Science Award,” says McNeil, regarding the $57 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to the School of Medicine in 2006 aimed at accelerating the translation of discoveries in basic biomedical science into practical treatments for disease. “As an undergraduate, one of my outstanding teachers was Professor Cowgill at Yale School of Medicine, and I wanted to make certain that he would be remembered for the great scientist, mentor and teacher that he was. It was also important to me to make sure that the Goodman and Gilman textbook would be forever linked to the School of Medicine, where it was conceived and written.”
McNeil’s newest gifts are the latest of many donations to Yale University and the School of Medicine. His endowment in 2000 of the Robert L. McNeil Jr. Professorship in Translational Research, now held by psychiatrist John Krystal, M.D., an expert on schizophrenia and alcoholism, anticipated the medical school’s current emphasis on translational research.
“Mr. McNeil is acknowledging a period of time in his life that he believes helped shape his career and nurtured his passion for medical science, and particularly clinical pharmacology” says David J. Leffell, M.D., deputy dean for clinical affairs and professor of dermatology, who has known McNeil for almost a decade. “Even back then, the School of Medicine was a resource for Yale College undergraduates,” says Leffell, who did research at the medical school during his own undergraduate years at Yale and sees McNeil as a kindred spirit. “It created an environment that attracted the best and the brightest from Yale College and from other schools.”
Over its first few decades the pharmacy founded by the McNeil patriarch built a citywide reputation as a provider of high-quality pharmaceuticals and eventually outgrew the original site, relocating to a nearby four-story building in 1900. Soon after, McNeil’s son, Robert Lincoln McNeil, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, joined the firm, focusing on its growing manufacturing and drug development division. His efforts led to the incorporation of the business as McNeil Laboratories in 1933.
The company’s shift to prescription drug manufacturing proved an ideal challenge for Robert L. McNeil Jr., who came on board as a research chemist in 1938 after receiving his Yale degree. One year later, his brother, Henry S. McNeil, a freshly minted Yale College graduate with a degree in applied economics, joined the company as well.
At that time, there was great interest among physicians and pharmaceutical companies alike in finding a compound that could equal the pain-relieving qualities of aspirin without its troublesome side effects, which include stomach irritation and thinning of the blood. By the early 1950s, under Robert L. McNeil Jr.’s guidance, McNeil Laboratories had a good candidate in hand in the form of acetaminophen, an analgesic that had been discovered in the 19th century but never developed, manufactured or marketed. After extensive testing to establish the drug’s safety and efficacy, acetaminophen was released for sale by prescription only in 1955 as Children’s Tylenol Elixir, the first commercially available aspirin-free pain reliever. In 1959, when the company was acquired by Johnson & Johnson, a tablet was approved for sale without a prescription. By the mid-1990s, Tylenol was the world’s best-selling over-the-counter analgesic.
In 2005, at a meeting of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Robert L. McNeil Jr. received the American Institute of Chemists’ Gold Medal. This award, which has been given to Nobel Prize winners, is a unique tribute to a man who does not hold a graduate degree in the field. McNeil is also prominent as a patron of the arts, with a particular interest in American art and material culture. He has served on the boards of the Yale University Art Gallery (where the lecture hall bears his name), the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. He has also served as vice president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He is a fellow of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia and has been elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society.
“Yale has many great traditions, but one of the finest is the quality of the students and faculty that have studied and worked at both the college and medical school,” says Dean Alpern. “These gifts by Mr. McNeil represent one of the college’s most accomplished students acknowledging the outstanding and inspiring faculty at the world-class Yale School of Medicine. It makes one feel proud to be associated with this great institution.”