Robert L. McNeil Jr., 94

Robert L. McNeil Jr., 94, dies; third-generation pharmacist marketed Tylenol

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Robert L. McNeil Jr., 94, a third-generation pharmacist who in the 1950s played a crucial role marketing the new drug Tylenol, which was manufactured at his family's laboratory and has since become one of the world's bestselling over-the-counter painkillers, died of a heart ailment May 20 at his home in Wyndmoor, Pa.

Mr. McNeil was a just out of pharmacy school in 1938 when he joined McNeil Laboratories, the Philadelphia-based company his grandfather had founded in 1879. Originally a neighborhood drugstore, it had morphed by then into a business marketing drugs directly to hospitals and doctors.

Almost immediately, Mr. McNeil was made responsible for evaluating the company's product line and establishing a research division to develop new prescription drugs, according the 2003 book "Pharmaceutical Achievers" by Mary Ellen Bowden, Amy Beth Crow and Tracy Sullivan.

In 1951, Mr. McNeil suggested that the company consider selling a little-known analgesic originally discovered in the 19th century that had only recently shown in rigorous studies to effectively reduce aches and fevers.

Skeptics wondered whether there would be sales potential for such a painkiller given the already widespread use of aspirin, which was relatively cheap. Mr. McNeil prevailed after pointing out that the new analgesic would have none of aspirin's unpleasant side effects and could be marketed to different clients as a prescription drug.

Company scientists did additional laboratory testing of the drug to secure approval for its sale from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Mr. McNeil came up with the drug's generic name, acetaminophen. One of his colleagues dubbed it Tylenol, an abbreviation of the chemical name, N-acetyl-p-aminophenol.

In 1955, Tylenol Elixir for Children hit the shelves. It was sold in a box shaped like a fire engine and marketed with the slogan "for little hotheads."

The following year, Mr. McNeil rose to become board chairman of McNeil Laboratories. In 1959, he and his brother, Henry, sold the company to Johnson & Johnson, which produced bandages and other health products, for more than $30 million in stock.

Soon afterward, Tylenol was approved for over-the-counter sale. It became one of the nation's most widely recognized brands and best-selling painkillers, giving rise to a host of imitators and helping turn Johnson & Johnson into a leading pharmaceutical manufacturer.

Mr. McNeil served until 1964 as chairman of McNeil Laboratories. Forty years later, the subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson employed 2,600 people, according to its Web site, and boasted $2.1 billion in annual sales.

Robert Lincoln McNeil Jr. was born in 1915 in Bethel, Conn., during a family trip to visit his grandparents. He graduated from Yale in 1936 and received a bachelor's degree in pharmacy from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, now the University of the Sciences.

He served as director of the American Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association and president of the Sons of the American Revolution. In 2005, Mr. McNeil received the American Institute of Chemists' Gold Medal Award.

Survivors include his wife, Nancy McKinney McNeil; four children; and 11 grandchildren.

After retiring, Mr. McNeil became a leading philanthropist with particular interest in the arts and sciences. He established the Barra Foundation to distribute millions of dollars to Philadelphia area institutions, including the city's zoo, where a newly renovated avian center was named after Mr. McNeil.

He was a trustee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and in 2006 gave the museum his collection of more than 450 pieces of china used by U.S. presidents from George Washington to Ronald Reagan.

Mr. McNeil donated generously to the University of Pennsylvania as well as to his alma maters. He was a commissioner of the National Portrait Gallery and a member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.

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