P. Roy Vagelos has succeeded in many fields—from physician to biomedical scientist and business leader—guided by a profound belief in the power of science to improve people's lives. As head of research and then CEO, Vagelos propelled Merck & Co. to global success and convinced them to give a vitally-important drug away for free, saving the sight of millions in the developing world. His commitment to helping others is further embodied by his widespread philanthropy and unwavering support for education.
A native of New Jersey, Pindaros Roy Vagelos is the son of Greek immigrants who came to the US from Greece. He grew up helping out in his parents' restaurant in Rahway, New Jersey, serving customers largely made up of workers from nearby pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. It was here where he developed a passion for science and chemistry. Vagelos received a scholarship to attend the University of Pennsylvania (BS chemistry, 1950) and then Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons (MD, 1954).
Vagelos completed his internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, then moved to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he was senior surgeon and head of comparative biochemistry from 1956-66. At NIH, he moved away from clinical medicine and began fundamental research into understanding how cells synthesize fatty acids. After moving into academia, he expanded his research into the role of cholesterol in the biochemistry of the cell. At Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis from 1966-75, Vagelos served as head of biochemistry and pioneered a melding of the graduate program of all the basic science departments of the medical school along with the Biology Department of the university to form the Division of Biology and Biomedical Science. A committed teacher and a stellar scientist, he mentored a generation of basic and translational scientists, five of whom were elected to the National Academy of Sciences. After having found success as a physician, researcher, and academic scientist, Vagelos was recruited back to his roots in Rahway, NJ, becoming head of research for Merck & Co. in 1975.
At Merck, one the world's largest drug makers, Vagelos changed the strategy for discovering drugs. Specific enzymes, receptors or ion channels that might be involved in a disease process were targeted for inactivation by synthetic chemicals or natural products. These novel molecules were tested for activity as drugs. During his time, Merck developed revolutionary statin drugs (lovastatin and simvastatin) that lower cholesterol and thus reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death worldwide. Merck also developed a drug in the 1980s, now called MECTIZAN, which treats river blindness, a widespread and debilitating parasitic disease that affects millions of people annually, primarily in Africa. After becoming CEO in 1985, Vagelos convinced Merck to give this critical medicine away for free—as much and as long as needed—thus saving hundreds of millions of people from blindness. Merck became famous for this unprecedented act of corporate social responsibility and was named “most admired" company in America by Fortune magazine for a record seven years in a row. Since retirement in 1994, Vagelos serves as chairman of the board at Regeneron, a leading biotechnology firm working on innovative medicines.
Vagelos is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. He is the author of more than 100 scientific papers and has received honorary doctorates from numerous universities, including Penn, Harvard, Washington University, Brown, Princeton, and Columbia. His many awards include a Lifetime Achievement Award from Shenzhen World Health Foundation (2018), the Bower Award for Business Leadership from the Franklin Institute (1999), and the National Academy of Science's Chemistry in Service to Society Award (1995).
Understanding the transformative power of philanthropy, Roy and his wife Diana have given generously to numerous worthy causes, and in particular to empowering the next generation through education. At the University of Pennsylvania, Roy served as member and chair of their board of trustees. The Vageloses also donated to create a new science center at Penn focused on energy research, in addition to other initiatives. In 2017, they made a transformative gift to Columbia University, replacing all student loans with scholarships for medical students in financial need. Columbia's historic medical school, the second oldest and one of the most prestigious in the United States, has been renamed the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in honor of Roy and Diana.