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For Drugs, Deep Roots

This article by Phyllis Maguire was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on January 13, 1999. All rights reserved.

Bristol-Myers Squibb’s research headquarters on Route

206 in Lawrenceville is a crucible of research efforts aimed at developing

drugs of the future. But within that modernistic complex lies a single

small room and some basement archives dedicated to preserving the


The Pharmaceutical Group Museum, its circular path flanked by display

cases filled with company artifacts, chronicles a corporate genealogy

of mergers and acquisitions and documents the evolution of drug manufacturing

and marketing. It takes only 40 paces to pass through the museum,

but it contains a panorama of a century and a half, when medicine

went from scilla syrup to ACE inhibitors.

Opening in the large adjacent gallery this week is a complementary

traveling history of science exhibition, "Marie Curie and the

Centenary of the Discovery of Radioactivity." Curated by Lynn

Gamwell, the exhibition of objects, books, manuscripts, and photographs

commemorates the centenary of Marie Sklodowska Curie’s work on radioactivity.

Curie shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre

Curie, and Henri Becquerel, who made the initial discovery in 1896;

then won the Nobel in chemistry in 1911 for her subsequent discovery

of the elements polonium and radium. The exhibition originated at

the New York Academy of Sciences with objects on loan from that institution

and from the Mutter Museum of Medicine in Philadelphia, the Massachusetts

Institute of Technology, and the Society in Tribute to Marie Sklodowska

Curie in Warsaw, Poland.

The exhibition documents a pivotal chapter in the history of modern

science and medicine, and also celebrates the life of a researcher

who continues to inspire women in science. Opening reception is Sunday,

January 17, from 3 to 5 p.m. The show runs to February 21.

Maintaining Bristol-Myers Squibb’s permanent archives,

and hence tracking today’s history of science in the making, are Ben

McDowell and Mildred Sheehan, two retired chemists. McDowell is a

self-described "Squibb man," his employment predating the

Bristol-Myers’ merger by more than four decades. He received his doctorate

from Ohio State University in 1944, the same year he began working

at the Squibb Institute for Medical Research in New Brunswick; Sheehan

was hired there in 1938. Both were part of the team that collaborated

on the mass production of penicillin, and the elegant Sheehan and

spry McDowell are modest about their participation. "I’m pleased,"

says McDowell, "with the contributions I’ve made."

The corporate archives are testimony to the historical value of staying

put. The company founded by Edward Squibb remained in Brooklyn for

over a century, accumulating material. Here is his mahogany rolltop

desk, his desk clock, and medical books. Here are drawers of print

ads, and notebooks filled with lab reports, while in the safe are

several volumes of Squibb’s journals, half of the dozen ledgers he

filled over decades. And here in a file cabinet are Squibb products,

many packaged before 1910 when the company stocked pharmacies with

spices as well as pharmaceuticals. Several of the antique packages

have been placed in the upstairs museum display cases.

At the museum entrance are photographs of four men whose surnames

have become household words: William Bristol, John Myers, Edward Squibb,

M.D., and Edward Mead Johnson. Squibb was the first in business. Raised

a Quaker in Philadelphia, he graduated from Jefferson Medical College

in 1845 when bleeding techniques with leeches were still taught. His

decision to become a Navy physician got him read out of Quaker meeting

— and began his life-long campaign against adulterated drugs.

As he ministered to crews’ venereal diseases and epidemics, he was

disgusted by the worms in the ship’s store of rhubarb, the sand in

the bicarbonate of soda.

Back on land, he was struck by variations in a new product, sulfuric

ether, and he perfected a method for distilling ether with steam.

"When Dr. Squibb had learned how to make pure ether of uniform

strength, he turned his attention to chloroform," wrote his biographer,

Lawrence G. Blochman. "And when he learned how to make chloroform,

he began to think of making money." Resigning his naval commission,

Squibb built a laboratory in Brooklyn Heights in 1858 which was gutted

by fire within a month, a bottle of ether — a green glass one

is displayed — breaking near a lit candle. Squibb saved his journals,

and though his hands were badly scarred and his eyelids seared away,

he rebuilt the lab.

Orders were slow before the Civil War but brisk once war got underway.

Some of Squibb’s ether made its confiscated way south to relieve Confederates.

He outfitted several hundred oak and mahogany medicine chests for

the Union Army, one of which is on display. A chart inside the lid

identifies over 50 vials of contained compounds and extracts: quinine

and morphine, camphor and opium. A top tray holds glass syringes and

oiled silk, a mortar for grinding powders, a calibrated pill tile

for measuring powder into pills.

After the Civil War, Squibb worked extensively on liquid opium and

designed an ether bag — here is one in linen — to protect

patients from being over-anesthetized. He stayed active in medical

and pharmaceutical societies; he refused to patent his inventions,

and he was author of a food and drug act that became law in New York

and New Jersey.

Here is Squibb’s 1874 inventory and a staff portrait

of 40 employees. The 1880s brought prosperity and international orders,

with Squibb disdaining the use of ready-made pills and refusing to

hire salespeople. He died in 1900, six years before the Food and Drug

Act he had crusaded for became federal law. Although his two sons

remained executives, they needed money to expand and in 1905, E. R.

Squibb & Sons was sold.

Two other faces at the museum entrance began their professional lives

together in 1887. William Bristol and John Myers were fraternity brothers

at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Bristol needed a trade,

Myers wanted an investment, and together they sank $5,000 of Myers’s

money in the Clinton Pharmaceutical Company, a failing manufacturing

firm headquartered in a second-story loft. Since neither knew anything

about pharmacology or manufacturing, they joined forces with another

pharmaceutical that contributed a bank account ($240), a pill-making

machine, and a salesman.

"Horse and buggy" doctors rolled pills and mixed elixirs at

patients’ bedsides; where doctors were unavailable, people relied

on home remedies. Clinton Pharmaceutical became the first company

to send its salesman to sell directly to doctors, traveling the countryside

and convincing physicians to try its purgatives, digestive tablets,

and Clinton Cascara Active, a laxative with 20 percent alcohol.

A copy of an 1889 weekly payroll shows a total of $32 being disbursed

among nine employees. The company moved to Syracuse for better railroads

and then to Brooklyn. When Myers died in 1899 at age 36, what had

been Bristol, Myers Company gained a hyphen, became a corporation,

and turned its first profit. By the beginning of this century, pharmacists

were replacing dispensing physicians, and the Bristol-Myers salesforce

was calling on druggists to promote its "specialty" or over-the-counter

products, as well as pharmaceuticals.

Their first speciality success was Ipana Tooth Paste; the second was

Sal Hepatica, a "poor man’s spa" of mineral salts. William

Bristol’s oldest son Henry, named general manager in 1915, came back

from the First World War convinced that the future belonged to specialty

items. Bristol-Myers jettisoned prescription drug production to focus

exclusively on toiletries, antiseptics, cold creams, and cough syrups,

advertising directly to consumers in women’s magazines and through

the new medium of radio.

The slogan "Ipana for the Smile of Beauty; Sal Hepatica for the

Smile of Health" was broadcast along with the music of the Ipana

Troubadours. An exquisitely-tinted print ad for Mum deodorant —

"Mum is the Word!" — features two columns of print and

a riot of italics: "Even more than beauty, DAINTINESS is the very

essence of feminine charm. Just a touch of Mum to the underarm and

elsewhere ANTICIPATES and PREVENTS all body odor." Coupons —

here in a stack called "certificates" — made products

even more affordable. In 1924, Bristol-Myers’ gross profits topped

$1 million and by 1929, the company was being publicly traded.

Mead Johnson & Company, founded by Edward Mead Johnson, began as a

"Manufacturing Chemist" in Jersey City in 1905. The company

put itself on the corporate map in 1911 with the introduction of Dextri-Maltose,

an infant malt sugar supplement, and built a new factory in Evansville,

Indiana in 1915. A photograph shows the sprawling factory, chimneys

smoking, set in fields next to grazing cattle.

"The Physician’s Policy is Mead’s Policy" reads a mounted

plaque. "For years, we have thrown all our resources into keeping

infant feeding where it belongs — in the hands of the medical

profession." That exclusivity was staunchly protected: "From

the beginning, Mead Johnson & Company have cooperated only with physicians,

never advertising to the public, never disclosing descriptive literature

with packages, never printing directions on packages, nor exploiting

the medical profession in any way."

But the merits of "never advertising to the public" were forgotten

by the time Mead Johnson standardized cod liver oil production in

1924 and introduced Pablum, the first instant baby cereal, in 1933.

One print ad shows a baby’s crying face with the banner, "I Don’t

Like Spinach!"; another boasts that Paplum is "richer than

any of these vegetables in Iron and Calcium," with beautifully

colored illustrations of outmoded tomatoes and carrots. Americans

had embraced processed and enriched foods, and Mead Johnson remained

the leader in infant formula, cereal, and vitamins.

Squibb bought land in New Brunswick to expand ether production, building

the Squibb Biological Laboratories there in 1915. Its over-the-counter

line, the Home Necessities Group, included Squibb Dental Cream, Castor

Oil, Epsom Salts, and Chocolate Covered Anemia Pills. Squibb never

stopped producing pharmaceuticals, and here is a leather case prepared

for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 African expedition, with vials of quinine

and digitalis, belladonna and calomel. "Squibb Week" was an

annual promotion, and prints ads for the "House of Squibb"

remind consumers that integrity was Squibb’s "Priceless Ingredient."

"Pharmaceutical research then addressed such illnesses as anemia,

rickets, vitamin deficiencies, and digestive problems," reads

one sign, and McDowell elaborates: "From the late 1800s, vaccines

were the front line of medical research. Squibb got into the vaccine

business around 1910 — the Iditerod dog race originally carried

Squibb diphtheria vaccine throughout Alaska — and remained heavily

in the field until the early ’50s." Photographs show the New Brunswick

labs being expanded to become the Squibb Institute for Medical Research

in 1938. "It was envisioned as an academic institution where scientists

could search for answers, not profits," says McDowell. "But

that changed with the war."

British scientist Alexander Fleming had discovered the antibacterial

activity of penicillin in 1928. With war declared, the federal government

— trying to avert the staggering death rate suffered from infection

during World War I — supported the efforts of Squibb and other

concerns to mass produce the antibiotic.

One of those concerns was Bristol-Myers. Its acquisition in the early

’40s of Cheplin Laboratories in Syracuse, which produced acidophilus

milk through fermentation, paved the way for Bristol-Myers to re-enter

the drug market; a photograph of the facility shows shelves filled

with containers of fermenting penicillin. With the advent of antibiotics,

Henry Bristol pushed for commercializing pharmaceuticals as vigorously

as he had vetoed them three decades before, and Bristol-Myers eventually

became one of the world’s largest antibiotic producers. Squibb was

also a major player, developing "pentids," a tablet penicillin

that incorporated the physician designation for three times a day

— "tid" — in its name.

"Instead of isolating drugs from plants or by use of animals to

produce vaccines, chemistry started to play a more important medical

role," McDowell says of the remarkable acceleration of medical

research after the war. "Drugs began to be synthesized in the

laboratory and manufactured." Whereas the 1940s had seen the mass

production of penicillin, the ’50s saw its synthesis, with research

into microbes as a source for antibiotics and the chemical creation

of drug compounds. The Institute for Medical Research shared an Albert

D. Lasker Award in 1955 — the trophy is on display — with

Hoffman-LaRoche for their discovery of Nydrazid, a breakthrough drug

for the treatment of tuberculosis. In the early ’60s, Squibb chemists

Oskar Wintersteiner and Josef Fried greatly enhanced the activity

of the cortisone molecule by combining it with fluorine; the product

they developed, Kenalog, was the first fluorinated corticosteroid.

Bristol-Myers in the meantime was busy acquiring companies. Clairol

was purchased in 1959, and several pharmaceuticals followed in the

1960s: Drackett; Zimmer; Westwood, with its Alpha-Keri line; its parent,

Foster-Milburn, maker of Doan’s Pills — and Mead Johnson. The

250 millionth can of Dextri-Maltose, produced in 1958, is on display;

Mead Johnson’s introduction of Enfamil a few years later made Dextri-Maltose

obsolete. Here is a pink box of Metrecal packets, available in Dutch

chocolate and eggnog, the first adult weight loss supplement. When

Mead Johnson became part of Bristol-Myers in 1967, it continued to

market vitamins and nutritional supplements, while its anticancer

drugs led to a full line of chemotherapy treatments.

Bristol-Myers and Squibb pursued complementary research during the

1970s: Bristol-Myers focused on antibiotics and dermatological, oncological,

and central nervous systems drugs, while Squibb researchers developed

medications for heart disease, infections, and — what would become

a growing market — mental disorders. Both companies issued brands

of cephalosporins, a new generation of antibiotics, while Squibb marketed

Azactam, one of the new monobactum family of antibiotics developed

from microbes found in the soil of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens.

In the 1970s, Squibb researchers synthesized protein compounds in

snake venom and patented capoten, an ACE inhibitor and breakthrough

treatment for hypertension — and a cornerstone of Squibb’s success

for the next 20 years. Displays document emerging fields of medicine:

technetium 99M generators, in white plastic, for nuclear medicine,

and Isovue 300, an agent for diagnostic imaging.

A print ad reading "Take Two" shows two pills, one inscribed

"Bristol-Myers" and the other "Squibb." The merger

took place in October, 1989, and the last museum case is filled with

joint products: blue boxes of Paraplatin, for recurrent ovarian cancer;

Videx and Zerit, for advanced H.I.V.; Manopril for hypertension; the

current anti-cholesterol blockbuster, Pravachol; glucophage for type

II diabetes; VePesid, an anticancer drug, and Servone, a new antidepressant.

The next generation of pharmaceuticals may arise from the field of

genomics, the identification and chemical manipulation of genes; those

products, yet to be developed, will take their place in the museum


A company that once had nine employees now has 52,000 worldwide, with

8,000 in New Jersey alone. The outfit that once marketed drugs directly

to physicians now advertises pharmaceuticals directly to the public.

With five major research sites in the United States and Europe linked

by smaller sites worldwide, and 4,000 scientific and administrative

personnel in its Pharmaceutical Research Institute; a yearly research

and development budget well over $1 billion, and $5.69 billion last

year in American drug sales, making it the nation’s leading seller

— the company’s museum is small, but the history it documents

is large indeed.

— Phyllis B. Maguire

The Museum at Bristol-Myers Squibb and Marie Curie

and the Centenary of the Discovery of Radioactivity , Bristol-Myers

Squibb, Route 206 and Province Line Road, 609-252-6275. Opening

reception for an exhibition commemorating the centenary of Marie Curie’s

discovery of radioactivity. Free. Sunday, January 17, 3 to 5 p.m.

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