Robert L. McNeil, Jr.

Born: July 13, 1915 | Bethel, CT, US
Died: May 20, 2010 | Wyndmoor, PA, US

Robert L. McNeil, Jr. discusses the evolution of his family's drugstore, the Firm of Robert McNeil and later McNeil Laboratories, after earning his B.S. in physiological chemistry and bacteriology at Yale University. Returning to Philadelphia, McNeil enrolled in the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Temple University's Graduate Pharmacy School, thus beginning his career in the family business and eventually becoming head of a successful pharmaceutical company. As a prominent figure in the pharmaceutical field, McNeil introduced top-selling pharmaceuticals in the nation, like Butisol¬Æ and eventually Tylenol¬Æ, and became president of the Philadelphia Drug Exchange and the Philadelphia branch of the American Pharmaceutical Association. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0224
No. of pages: 66
Minutes: 297

Interview Sessions

Arnold Thackray and Mary Ellen Bowden
13, 30 August 2001 and 15 August 2002
Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Barra Foundation, Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania

Abstract of Interview

Robert L. McNeil, Jr. begins his interview by discussing his parent's heritage and the evolution of the Firm of Robert McNeil, the drugstore started by his grandfather. As young men, McNeil and his brother worked as errand boys for their father. During the summers, McNeil traveled, working on a ranch and as a camp counselor. McNeil attended high school at Germantown Academy, and went to Yale University to study physiological chemistry and bacteriology. After receiving his B.S. degree, he returned to Philadelphia. Subsequent to his grandfather's death, McNeil, at the young age of twenty, began his career in the family business, which by then had evolved into McNeil Laboratories, Inc., headed by his father, R. Lincoln McNeil. By attending pharmaceutical conferences as well as enrolling in the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy's four-year program and Temple University's Graduate Pharmacy School course in pharmacology, under Professor James Munch, McNeil was able to gain the experience necessary to eventually head a successful pharmaceutical company. One of McNeil's first challenges was helping McNeil Laboratories update their manufacturing practices in keeping with the new Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938. With his strong knowledge of pharmacology, and the advice of many of the top men in Philadelphia's medical field, McNeil was able to introduce what would become some of the top-selling pharmaceuticals in the nation, including Butisol and eventually Tylenol. While helping McNeil Laboratories to reach a new level of success, McNeil was on the board of many pharmaceutical organizations, and was the president of the Philadelphia Drug Exchange, as well as the Philadelphia branch of the American Pharmaceutical Association. McNeil also found time to marry and to help raise three children, along with a stepson from his wife's previous marriage. In 1959, McNeil Laboratories was sold to Johnson & Johnson and after a seven-year “transitional” period, McNeil retired and entered the venture capital field. He also devoted time to the study of our Colonial history and material culture and to the development of The Barra Foundation (originally named The Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Foundation). McNeil concludes his interview with a short comment on his views of the fast evolution of today's pharmaceutical field. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1936 Yale University BS Physiological Chemistry and Bacteriology
1938 Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science BSc Pharmacy
1970 Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science DSc, Hon Pharmacy

Professional Experience

McNeil Laboratories

1936 to 1940
Research Chemist
1940 to 1948
Director of Research Department
1941 to 1956
Member of the Board of Directors
1949 to 1956
Vice President of Production and Development
1956 to 1964
Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer
1964 to 1966
Corporate Development

The Barra Foundation

1964 to 2003
Founder and President


Year(s) Award

Remington Memorial Prize, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science


Member, American Antiquarian Society


Fellow, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia


Wallace Award, American-Scottish Foundation


Fellow, American Philosophical Society


Gold Medal, American Institute of Chemists

Table of Contents

The Firm of Robert McNeil

Background of mother and father. Siblings. Grandfather starts the family drugstore business in 1879 in Philadelphia. Religious background. The Firm. Working in neighborhood hospital. Grandfather's stroke. Creation of McNeil Laboratories, Inc. Pharmacy era ending.

Childhood and Early Education

Errand boy as a young man. Summer experiences punching cattle in Montana and as a camp counselor. Skips third grade and enters Germantown Academy for fourth grade. Excels in high school sports.

College Years

The decision to go to Yale University. Sheffield Scientific School. College sports. Organic chemistry with Professor Robert Coghill. Father has two operations. Returns home. Enrolls at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy four-year degree program. Finishes in two years with distinction. Attends Temple University's Graduate Pharmacy School for pharmacology.

Career at McNeil Laboratories, Inc.

Living at home to help with family. Attends pharmaceutical conferences and meetings. Passing of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 has repercussions on pharmaceutical business. Complying with the 1938 laws. Relationship with father. Firm grows despite Depression. Development of Butisol. Remaining in industry during World War II.

Growth of McNeil Laboratories after World War II

Continued growth and expansion. A new plant. Build up of research department to include pharmacologists and organic chemists. Adjunct professor for manufacturing course at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. Tylenol trials and success.


Meeting the future Mrs. McNeil. Attending and presiding over various pharmaceutical conferences and meetings. Life in a family business. Johnson & Johnson buys McNeil Laboratories, Inc. Thoughts on pharmaceutical business today.

Addenda I

Letter from McNeil Laboratories, Inc. to Dr. Charles Gruber regarding the toxicological and pharmacological properties of Butisol, and the Outline of Program for Butisol Investigations; Status as of 25 August 1944.

Addenda II

Statement of Policy, The Barra Foundation, Inc.

Addenda III

Projects Revealing our American Culture and National Heritage (relating to the period 1750-1825), The Barra Foundation, Inc.

Addenda IV

Publications Sponsored by The Barra Foundation, Inc.


About the Interviewer

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received MA and PhD degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

Mary Ellen Bowden