Gerald Laubach, PhD '50

Dr. Gerald (Gerry) Laubach received his PhD in Chemistry in 1950 under Professor John C. Sheehan.  He spent his career thereafter at Pfizer Inc., rising to the position of president of the company in 1972.  To mark the occasion of his retirement in 1991, Pfizer established a career development chair in his name at MIT.  To date, 10 junior faculty members have benefitted from the Pfizer Inc.-Gerald Laubach Career Development Professorship, and chemistry professor Brad Pentelute is the current holder.

In addition to being a member of the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering, Gerry Laubach is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the New York Academy of Medicine, and an Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Chemists.

In 1985, he was the recipient of the International Palladium Medal awarded by the American Section of the Société de Chemie Industrielle and the Mayor’s Award in Science and Technology (bestowed by Hizzoner, Mayor Ed Koch).

His public service included membership in The President’s Commission on Industrial Competitiveness during the Reagan Administration, and the National Science Board’s Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology.

Former board service with academic institutions includes: Brooklyn Polytech, Connecticut College, Carnegie Science, and The New York Academy of Sciences.  He was awarded honorary degrees by Connecticut College, Hofstra University, and the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine of the City University of New York.

Former board service in business and industrial firms, in addition to Pfizer, includes: Cigna, Loctite and Millipore Corporations and the biotech firms include Affymax, DNA Plant Technology, BioTechnology General, and GenProbe.

The reminiscences and commentary that follow are in response to questions posed by Liz McGrath, Communications and Development Coordinator in the Department of Chemistry in the 2014 alumni issue of the department's newsletter, Chemformation.

In 1947, when I arrived at MIT for graduate studies in chemistry, the Department of Chemistry was very much in transition.

Arthur C. Cope had just been hired from Columbia University as the new chair of the department, evidently with a mandate to make extensive changes. Cope had been active in the WW2 science effort and had chemistry contacts throughout the US, so he began his term by recruiting a large cadre of new faculty: Jack Roberts from Caltech, John Sheehan from Merck, and Charles D. Coryell from Clinton Laboratories, to name just a few.

An extensive faculty from an earlier era, however, was still in place.  Among them was Prof. Avery Ashdown, a bit slowed by severe arthritis but nonetheless magisterially presiding over graduate housing in Ashdown House, and Prof. Nicolas (Nicky) Milas, rarely without his trademark cigar, who wrestled with the oily complexity of Vitamin A chemistry in the basement, and who, it was widely held, initiated his multi-litre Grignard reactions by pressing the glowing tip of his cigar onto the reaction flask.

I was lucky enough to be among a generation of graduate students that occupied one of the several new chemistry laboratories.  This particular corps of graduate students also reflected transition. The great majority of them were resuming careers interrupted by the war; they were older, often married, and more serious about getting on with their studies than students just out of college.

This age—one might say generational—difference was evident in two very young MIT undergraduates who spent a great deal of time hanging around the Sheehan Lab.  Lab members referred to them as the “Bobsey twins.” It turned out the two were sizing up the lab for grad school and both did end up joining the Sheehan group.  One of these “twins” was Barry Bloom who joined Pfizer in 1952 after a post-doc with Bill Johnson at Wisconsin.  Barry subsequently became my successor as a Director, and Vice President for Research at Pfizer, retiring in 1993.  

The other “twin” was E.J. Corey who was recruited to the University of Illinois by Roger Adams, and then, in 1959, went on to Harvard University where he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1990 for his development of the theory and methodology of organic synthesis, specifically retrosynthetic analysis.  EJ also became an early consultant to Pfizer Research and celebrated a 50th anniversary as such a few years ago.

As a newly minted professor with six or eight brand new lab spaces to fill, John Sheehan probably did a good deal of networking to glean graduate students from around the country. Prof. Marvin Carmack, then at Penn, who was an acquaintance of Sheehan’s from grad school, was the middleman that led to my appointment to a Research Assistantship in Sheehan’s group.

Bristol Laboratories, a newly founded pharmaceutical company, funded my research and I was charged to discover a non-steroidal androgen, e.g., a synthetic male sex hormone. In retrospect, this was a considerable challenge for a green grad student, and a professor whose principal experience and interest was penicillin!  However, Sheehan and I contrived a rationale that led to the synthesis of a family of complex cyclohexanones. They were  fun to make, but alas, not hormones.

By amusing coincidence, one of the compounds synthesized in this research turned up in a collection of surplus chemicals Pfizer obtained from MIT for use in a program of in-vitro screening for bioactivity. After three, maybe four decades, I remember that the crystals looked pretty good but were still not bioactive.

Naïve and unsuccessful though it was, this little project was medicinal chemistry—and medicinal chemistry had been my primary interest from the beginning.

I recall a number of years ago,  in a social discussion among pharmaceutical research types, my surprise to learn that the career choices of several of us had been powerfully influenced by “The Microbe Hunters,” an exploration by author Paul de Kruif of the history of research on infectious disease, antibacterials, and antibiotics.  Fortuitously, and appropriately, my first laboratory job (after school, 11th grade) was doing bacteriology to screen coal tar chemicals for bioactivity (among other lab chores) in a sponsored program at the University of Delaware.

The penicillin team was the main event in the Sheehan laboratory,  and I was pleased to be a part of it for the second part of my thesis. Prof. Sheehan has well summarized this piece of the penicillin story in his book, The Enchanted Ring.

One of Sheehan’s best, and often repeated sayings, was: “to synthesize penicillin is like placing an anvil on a house of cards.” In the end, a method developed for other purposes proved to be the tool to do that delicate trick.

What Prof. Sheehan doesn’t do in his book is describe his approach to the guidance of a research group.  I suspect none of us in his lab fully appreciated his light touch and the opportunity it provided us to develop originality and independence.

In the late ‘40s—and I imagine, nowadays as well—grad students were expected to spend long hours in the laboratory. But Boston was, and still is, an exciting place for students. I confess to having had the luxury of a season ticket to Sunday matinees at the Symphony, to membership in an amateur Gilbert and Sullivan group at Harvard, and to occasional getaways for skiing and mountaineering.

I recall one memorable escapade on, I believe, Memorial Day weekend in 1949 or ‘50.  E.J. Corey, Charlie Robinson (another Sheehan student, now retired from Wyeth Laboratories), and I set out by train to North Conway for a three-day traverse of Mt. Washington, walking on snow most of the way.  Finally, in our bedraggled state, we were retrieved at Pinkham Notch by friends who had driven up from Boston.  Among these friends was Winifred Taylor who was an English major from Tufts, a part-time assistant in Nicky Milas’s lab, and my future wife.

There were occasional fun activities inside the department itself. One memorable occasion, we grad students performed a radically modified version of the Broadway show Finian’s Rainbow, written and produced by Victor Frank (PhD with Sheehan, then to DuPont). The show was, of course, a faculty roast: “How are things in Glocca Morra?” turned into “How are things with Cope and Sheehan?” A good time was had by all!

Immediately after I completed my PhD, Pfizer offered me a position in medicinal chemistry.  I jumped at this ground-floor opportunity. Pfizer, for 100 years up until 1950, had been supplying mostly fermentation-derived chemicals, including penicillin, to the pharmaceutical and food industries, but had just made the transition to becoming a pharmaceutical company.

My first assignment was to try to develop a chemical synthesis of cortisone from ergosterol, a natural sterol produced in small quantities, as a by-product in the manufacture of citric acid by fermentation. Cortisone, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland, had been found by Mayo scientists E.C. Kendall and Phillip Hench, to produce miraculous benefits in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Industrial-scale production, however, was thought to require a more readily available natural steroid as a starting material—and a means to insert an oxy substituent at the inaccessible 11-position of that steroid.

Carl Djerassi, in his autobiography, describes the horse race of competing research groups seeking to solve this problem, and how all were discomfited by Upjohn biochemists who discovered a way to introduce the 11- oxygen by fermentation. But an even more important development was the growing recognition that prolonged administration of cortisone—and the ever more potent analogs that were being discovered—induced unacceptable side-effects. Thus, corticosteroids became limited to specialized medical niches. But these drugs, despite their limitations, did demonstrate that it was possible to discover a dramatically effective medicine for an intractable, non-infectious disease, and perhaps there could be others?  

Corticosteroid research at Pfizer, and doubtless at many other laboratories, was thus redeployed to explore that possibility.

One of the first new medicines to emerge from the Pfizer program was a convenient, long-acting oral drug for the treatment of diabetes. Other drugs from the program—for use in psychotherapy, hypertension, inflammatory diseases—followed.  New antibiotics were discovered.  Structural modification of older antibiotics—notably penicillin and tetracycline—yielded important new medicines.  Collaborations with European firms and independent research laboratories contributed to a growing portfolio of  Pfizer pharmaceuticals.

Growth, and change, in Pfizer R&D from the ‘60’s onward was continuous and multifaceted.  Newly recruited staff included a number of MIT chemists.  The old laboratories in Brooklyn became crowded and new research centers were built in Connecticut and overseas in England and France. Organization was realigned to better foster the close interaction of chemists, pharmacologists and clinicians in project teams. The “D” in R&D, grew bigger, more sophisticated, more precise—in response to the increasingly stringent standards for proof of the safety and efficacy of new drugs.

Indeed, every dimension of a pharmaceutical firm—manufacture, marketing, demonstrating new medical applications of established drugs—became increasingly reliant upon science. Perhaps that had something to do with my appointment as head of Pfizer’s US pharmaceutical operations in 1969, and as president of the company in 1972.

Retirement from Pfizer in 1991 coincided with a unique and timely opportunity to contemplate the status of pharmaceutical R&D. I was appointed to the chair of a new committee that IOM had established to broadly survey  technological innovation in medicine.

Several busy and rewarding years followed.  Ultimately, the National Academy Press published five volumes, recording proceedings of conferences organized by the committee, and an overall summary was published in the NAS “Issues in Science and Technology” in 1995.

The outlook for pharmaceutical innovation that was intimated in these publications has been largely confirmed by subsequent events.

The growing understanding of biological processes in molecular terms has certainly provided the medicinal chemist with many new targets for drug discovery. However, the research based pharmaceutical industry has simultaneously undergone truly disruptive change.  Legislation, enacted in 1984, mandated that after a drug patent expires, the safety and efficacy data generated by the innovator to gain approval to market that drug in the USA—the innovator’s most valuable intellectual property—may be relied upon by other manufacturers to seek approval of generic copies. The loss of revenues, as patents have expired on older medicines, has led to massive consolidation of the industry. Long established firms have disappeared in mergers. Laboratories have closed.

Our policies toward medical innovation are contradictory.  As a nation, we generously fund basic research to create biomedical knowledge, but, at the same time, we have eroded the capacity for applied research and development to translate that knowledge into useful medicines.

Liz McGrath
Senior Individual Giving Officer

Department of Chemistry
Room 18-388
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
Phone: 617-253-4080




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