Dr. P. Roy Vagelos, C’50, has led a career that spans medicine, academia, and industry—epitomizing the philosophy behind the Life Sciences & Management Program.
Dr. Vagelos studied chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and medicine at Columbia University. Following his internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, he joined the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda in 1956. He served as Senior Surgeon and later Section Head of Comparative Biochemistry, conducting fundamental research on lipid metabolism and discovering the acyl-carrier protein (ACP), a key factor in this process.
In 1966 Dr. Vagelos moved into academia to become chairman of the Department of Biological Chemistry at Washington University’s School of Medicine. He founded and directed the University’s Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences, an unprecedented model for the fusion of a medical school with an undergraduate biology department that many other universities soon emulated.
Merck & Co. asked Dr. Vagelos to serve as Senior Vice President for Research in 1975. Assuming the role of CEO in 1984, he led with great distinction both as a scientist and visionary corporate leader. In this arena, he is perhaps best known for his role in two major objectives. He was the lead scientist in Merck’s development of the statin drugs Mevacor and Zocor, cardiovascular protective and remediative agents that serve to decrease blood cholesterol levels by inhibiting HMG-CoA reductase, the enzyme that catalyzes the step in which dietary carbon is committed to cholesterol biosynthesis. He was also the key advocate in Merck’s decision to make ivermectin freely available to the people of Africa and Central America for the treatment of river blindness, what was a widespread, chronic, and debilitating disease disseminated by black flies. At the peak of his leadership in the 1980s and early 1990s, up until his retirement in 1994, Merck was considered the world’s leader of the pharmaceutical industry.
Dr. Vagelos is the author of more than 100 scientific papers and an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. For his seminal work on ACP, Dr. Vagelos was awarded the American Chemical Society’s Enzyme Chemistry Award in 1967, and for his leadership of Merck he was awarded the National Academy of Science’s Chemistry in Service to Society Award in 1995. He was inducted into the National Business Hall of Fame in 1995. In 1998, he received Penn Arts & Sciences’ Distinguished Alumni Award in recognition of his lifetime achievements in the sciences. The Franklin Institute honored him in 1999 with the Bower Award for Business Leadership for his role in eradicating river blindness.
Dr. Vagelos has served as chairman for the Development Campaign of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and the board of directors of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals; co-chairman of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center; a trustee of The Danforth Foundation, Inc.; and a director of PepsiCo, Inc., the Prudential Insurance Company of America, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, the Estee Lauder Companies, Inc., and McDonnell Douglas.
At Penn, Dr. Vagelos served as Chair of the University’s Board of Trustees from 1995 to 1999. He is a former member of Penn Arts & Sciences’ Board of Advisors and the founding Chair of the Committee for Undergraduate Financial Aid.