Physician, pharmaceutical executive, philanthropist
Born: October 8, 1929, in Westfield, New Jersey
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2022: Enterprise
Rarely does a corporate leader have the kind of positive impact on world health that P. Roy Vagelos made during his tenure at New Jersey-based pharmaceutical giant Merck.
The son of Greek immigrants, Pindaros Roy Vagelos grew up in Rahway, attended Rahway High School and earned a partial scholarship to study chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1950 and went on to earn a medical degree from Columbia University.
After completing his internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Vagelos joined the National Institutes of Health in 1956 as senior surgeon. He later became head of section of comparative biochemistry. During his decade at NIH, Vagelos discovered a key protein involved in lipid metabolism, the bodily process of breaking down or storing fats for energy.
Next Vagelos moved into the academic arena as chairman of the biological chemistry department at Washington University’s School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he founded and became director of the university’s Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences. This unique academic model broke ground by linking the medical school with the biology department.
In 1975, Vagelos made the move to Merck. Serving initially as senior vice president for research, Vagelos became president of the research division in 1976. In addition, starting in 1982, he served as the Merck senior vice president responsible for strategic planning. In 1984, he was elevated to executive vice president.
Vagelos was named CEO of Merck in 1985 and chairman in 1986. As a researcher, Vagelos was the lead scientist in Merck’s development of the statin drugs Lovastatin and Zocor, which serve to decrease blood cholesterol levels. As CEO, he was the key advocate in Merck’s decision in 1987 to make the drug Mectizan freely available to the people of Africa and Central America for the treatment of river blindness, a widespread, chronic and debilitating disease disseminated by black flies. Over two decades, the drug reached more than 55 million people, eliminating river blindness as a major public health issue in the savannah areas of West Africa.
Vagelos retired from Merck in 1994; beginning in 1996, he served as chairman of the board of biotech company Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. He has received numerous top honors for his research and leadership in the pharma field. He and his wife, Diana, have donated tens of millions of dollars to advance scientific research and education, specifically at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.