The Father of Pharmaco-Philanthropy
It was the pleasure of the author of this website and newsletter to once meet with Dr. Vagelos in his office and discuss philanthropy, the Impressionists, world travel and church life with him. Unfortunately, only one meeting occurred. The author was working for a Greek Orthodox parish and his work with them concluded soon after the meeting. The publicly known giving of Dr. Vagelos and his wife Diane includes $35,000,000 to the University of Pennsylvania, where he served for many years as the chairman of the board of trustees, $50,000,000 to Columbia University and $15,000,000 to Barnard College. No doubt many other gifts, not publicly announced, have been made as well. Gifts have been made to the Orthodox Church as well but nothing on this scale.
Permit me to pose a couple of questions: “Would it have been worthwhile to invest in one full time professional Orthodox major or principal gift officer, supported by a full time executive assistant, working closely with church leadership for five years just to receive just one gift of $5 million? At a 5% withdrawal rate, should the $5 million be invested in an endowment to generate $250,000/year, it would be more than enough to fund two full time missionaries or two endowed chairs at one of our seminaries. And what if the church had been doing this for decades? And what if many more gifts and much larger gifts had been received? Funding is only one of a number of factors that increase church service and church growth but without it service and growth is severely limited.
The article below was written by Penelope Karageorge Special to The National Herald January 27, 2007. It reaffirms the conviction of Stewardship Advocates that Orthodox leadership fails to grasp the importance of investing in professional development as universities and cultural institutions have been doing for decades. We do not think beyond checkbook giving, loose change in the pocket or massively laborious festivals. Where is the vision?
Growing up in Rahway, N.J., “Pindo” Vagelos (short for Pindaros) enjoyed working in his father’s luncheonette, Estelle’s, but shunned schoolwork, preferring the role of class clown. An indifferent student, he had problems reading and wrote his book reports based on the volumes his older sister, a voracious reader, consumed. But in junior high, an algebra teacher, Miss Brokaw, turned his life around. When she saw the “slow” student whizzing through algebra, completing homework assignments in record time, she piled extra, accelerated work on Vagelos. He found himself “rocketing through mathematics. When I realized that she believed me capable of doing more, I went up the scale. From being at the bottom of the class, I graduated Number One.”
Dr. Roy Vagelos (Roy is his middle name, the Anglicized version of his father’s name, Herodotus) went on to achieve a remarkable career in science that embraced everything from developing life-saving drugs to making Merck Pharmaceutical an international giant. Known as the “Father of Pharmaco-Philanthropy,” he counts as that rare individual who actually changed how the world works. Even better, the self-confessed “science addict” has loved every minute of it. He eschews the word “brilliant,” as applied to him and claims “hard work” has been the key to his wide-ranging success.
“I’ve been fabulously lucky,” Vagelos says. “I’ve been able to work in areas that for me were like a hobby. I’ve never felt like I was going to work. That’s why I can work so many hours, 10 to 12 hours a day. Other people work their hours, and then they go to play golf. I don’t play golf. But I run, five miles every morning. It clears my head, and I organize my whole day while I’m running. It’s really important for me.”
Vagelos set the pace for pharmaceutical companies, as well as individuals like musician Bono and billionaire Bill Gates, to reach out and give freely to help eradicate diseases around the world. While CEO of Merck, Vagelos spearheaded an unprecedented effort to fight and lick the grotesque disease of River Blindness by giving the drug Mectizan, developed by Merck, free of charge to all those in need. Says Vagelos: “It’s a drug we discovered in 1975 and finally were able to deliver to Africa starting in 1987. By 2005, 62 million people were receiving the free drug and will not become blind. The target is 100 million people.”
Vagelos describes River Blindness, caused by bites from parasite-bearing flies, and its cure: “Parasites mature to live in lumps in the skin and make millions of microfilaria that go all through the skin, causing terrible itching, moving into the eyes, causing inflammation, scarring of the eyes and blindness.
“Now, when you give one tablet of this drug to an individual, it kills all the microfilaria. Once they’re gone in the skin, the flies don’t have a source for the disease, so they become sterile and can’t transmit the disease. And if you treat a large geographic area and give everyone one tablet, then the whole area becomes sterile. And so they’re just going around the world, and it’s getting broader and broader.”
Vagelos had come to the New York Hilton to be the guest of honor at Saint Sypridon Church’s 75th Anniversary Gala. Entering the room in black tie, with nimble grace, Vagelos, tall and tanned, with a long, lean, expressive face, exuded a low-key dynamism and palpable charm.
Asked what he regarded as his greatest accomplishment, he does not hesitate: “The introduction of several of the most important drugs and vaccines. I heard that there were about 350 people coming tonight. I would bet that every person in that room has taken one of my drugs, or if they haven’t, their children or grandchildren have.
“How many people take statins for heart disease? The statins started in my laboratory, the great antibiotics, the new drug for glaucoma, drugs for prostate disease, peptic ulcers. It was just a very exciting time. For a young doctor, who initially was interested in the practice of medicine, and loved it, to be able to touch the lives of literally millions of people through the use of the science that I understood, biochemistry, was great.”
At 77 (now 86), Vagelos manifests the unalloyed enthusiasm of a young scientist, although he retired 12 years ago as CEO of Merck. He continues to push experimentation forward as chairman of two biotech companies, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Theverance. “I hope that one of my companies will hit a home run and cure one of the diseases that’s now incurable. Because when it comes to science, I can’t stop. That would be unlike me.”
When he lectures at the University of Pennsylvania, students flock to hear his “ad lib” lectures. He has never mastered the art of memorization. When he was high school valedictorian, the principal gave him special permission to read his speech. “It’s a problem I’ve had all my life. And that gave me great difficulties when I was a medical student, because what you do in anatomy is learn the names of bones and blood vessels. And I couldn’t remember them. And so I would get very, very tense about these things.
“I figure things out as I go. I have a computer-like brain, so I make associations. I can go way back and explain experiments that were done 25 years ago. The things that I understand are in the computer in my mind. This gives me a great advantage, by the way.”
Vagelos first rubbed shoulders with scientists in Estelle’s Luncheonette, where the major customers were Merck people headquartered in Rahway. “They were chemists and microbiologists. I talked with them, and listened to what they were saying, and realized that they were excited about their work. I thought, I really want to be like them.”
With a science career in view, Vagelos applied to Rutgers, the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins. “And I had this rude awakening. Johns Hopkins summoned me to a New York hotel to be interviewed by a committee, but cut the interview short when I responded to their questioning that neither my father nor my mother attended John Hopkins or any university.
“I was depressed at the moment, but later I was invited back to Johns Hopkins and offered the chairmanship of their biochemistry department. I told them there was no way I could accept that job, because how could I head a department at a university that wouldn’t accept me as a student? I don’t forget slights. I think I am fair, but if someone does me in I remember that.”
He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1950 from the University of Pennsylvania, and his medical degree from the Columbia University School of Medicine. He served as Senior Surgeon and the Section Head of Comparative Biochemistry at the National Institutes of Health from 1956 to 1966. While there, he discovered the acyl-carrier protein (ACP), a key factor in lipid metabolism.
He then joined Washington University’s School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he founded its Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences. He established a model for fusing medical schools with undergraduate biology departments that many universities soon emulated.
In 1975, he joined Merck, developed important drugs, then mastered marketing and management to achieve the top position of chief executive officer. By the time he retired as CEO and chairman of the board in 1994, he had built Merck into the largest pharmaceutical company in the world.
“Management really is leadership,” Vagelos says. “I love it. That comes naturally to me. From the time I can remember, I was able to lead people because they like winning, and I like to work with people, and I involve myself in their problems, and so things tend to succeed when I’m involved, and they like that.”
Nonetheless, Vagelos admits: “Discovery is my greatest love.” From an inattentive schoolboy, Vagelos grew to a man with a zest for knowledge and growth that kept him moving on to new challenges. “That was my internal clock,” he says. “You have this curve where you’re learning things, and then you get good at it. Once you’ve done it, you start feeling the itch to go into a learning mode again. And for me, this has been something of a ten-year hitch.”
Before making a move, Vagelos would discuss it long and intensely with his wife, Diana, whom he met when she was a student at Barnard. He says, “I have a very important wife, who is extraordinarily supportive and tolerates things that most people would not. Diana sort of figured me out. We were married 51 1/2 years ago in St. Spyridon. She recognizes what’s important for me. She knows that I have to be challenged, that I go through periods when I’m sullen. She can tolerate that. And she can also organize things when I won’t take the time.
“In addition, we discuss constantly, all the things that are important to both of us. She’s on the board of Barnard College, and so we talk about Barnard problems, and I talk about Columbia problems. I really believe had she not been so supportive of my career, she would have ended up in politics or something like that, because she’s very, very smart and she has wonderful interpersonal skills, just fabulous.”
For Vagelos, family has always been important. His prime role model, Vagelos says, was his father, Herodotus, one of five surviving brothers from a large family from Eressos, Mytilini. “When someone was sick it was he who took them to the doctor, the hospitals. And he and my mother were responsible for bringing over many, many relatives from Greece, and keeping them in the house. And so responsibility and the willingness to take on helping people really came from my dad and my mother and their involvement in life in general.”
Vagelos and wife Diana play tennis, enjoy the opera, collect Impressionist art and travel, sometimes with their four children and grandchildren. Both are involved in nurturing the arts, with Diane Vagelos founding president of the Women’s Board of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Once a non-reader, Vagelos reads constantly, science journals and historical biographies given to him by his son, a medical doctor who majored in history at Harvard.
Vagelos and his wife visit Greece frequently. “To go back to that beautiful country, which is unlike any in the Western world, and to know that your roots go back to Aristotle and Sophocles, the great philosophers, the first doctors, the first mathematicians, and your genes are coming from that. It is fabulous.
“What could be more exciting than reading Homer. I’ll tell you what — hearing ‘The Iliad’ on tape read by F. Murray Abraham. It’s hair-raising, thrilling. So to be related to folks who did all those things is not a bad thing. Gosh, your genes have to be the source of everything. And I’m pure Greek. Absolutely 100 percent. And my children are 100 percent Greek. My wife, Diana’s, family is from the island of Cephalonia.”
Vagelos brainstormed an experiment that could settle the on-going “Greek question.” Do today’s Greeks descend from the ancients? “While I was president of the American School of Classical Studies, I suggested a DNA study. There are hundreds if not thousands of skeletons from the Acropolis and other ancient places, literally thousands of skeletons from the golden era of Greece, 450 B.C.
“And I thought we could take DNA — usually you take it from teeth, that’s where it’s best-preserved — and relate it to the present-day Athenians. But the Greeks did not want to do that. Because they were afraid they would not be related. And I said you should do it, because somebody’s going to do it, but they wouldn’t let me. The school backed off.”
In the book “Medicine, Science and Merck,” a page-turner published by Cambridge University Press, Vagelos tells his inspiring story in depth. The book’s highly recommended to science enthusiasts and the uninitiated alike.
Would he advise young people to seek careers in science?
“I cannot imagine anything that would be more exciting than going into biomedical sciences at this time. New information is exploding. Our capability to do exciting things is greater than it has ever been, and I find it so thrilling and engrossing that I cannot imagine that people would go into other fields. I mean – why would they do that?”
Freelance writer Penelope Karageorge’s eclectic career has ranged from Newsweek reporter to poet (“Red Lipstick and the Wine-Dark Sea”), People Magazine publicity director to novelist (“Stolen Moments”). She has written and produced short films, and written award-winning scripts as well as the new feature-length “Drinking the Sun.”
The following article appeared in the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation publication the “Kaiser Daily Health Global Report” November 26,2012.
Recognizing Pharmaceutical Philanthropy’s Role In Fighting NTDs
“In October 1987, Roy Vagelos, then the chief executive of [pharmaceutical company] Merck, launched the largest pharmaco-philanthropic venture ever,” William Foege, an epidemiologist and former director of the CDC, writes in a Washington Post opinion piece highlighting the company’s efforts to combat onchocerciasis in the developing world through the free distribution of its drug Mectizan. Initially developed to protect dogs against heartworms, Merck found a human version of the drug “could inhibit the microfilaria of onchocerciasis for a year with a single dose,” Foege continues, adding, “Merck said that it would supply the drug as long as it was needed. Extended surveillance has shown this to be one of the safest drugs ever developed.”
“The original target of treating six million people in six years was achieved in four years,” Foege notes, adding, “A quarter-century after the program began, one billion treatments have been provided free by Merck.” He continues, “This example has been replicated by programs that utilize mass distribution of drugs to treat what are called the ‘neglected tropical diseases’ [NTDs,] diseases that affect one billion of the poorest people on Earth,” adding, “In some of the least recognized but most important global health efforts of this century, pharmaceutical companies are teaming up with more than 50 ministries of health in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as with the World Health Organization, the World Bank, UNICEF and NGOs” to fight these diseases. Foege concludes, “Some regard it as politically incorrect to thank pharmaceutical companies, but in this case saying thanks seems insufficient. For millions spared the loss of sight and even more spared the burden of itching, there is no adequate way to thank Merck” (11/22).