Oral history interview with Robert L. McNeil, Jr.

Oral history interview with Robert L. McNeil, Jr.

  • 2001-Aug-13 (First interview)
  • 2001-Aug-30 (Second interview)
  • 2002-Aug-15 (Third 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

Place of interview
Original file type PDF, FLAC
  • 69 pages
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewer

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.

Physical location


Interviewee biographical information

  • July 13, 1915
  • Bethel, Connecticut, United States
  • May 20, 2010
  • Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, United States


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

Barra Foundation

  • 1964 to 2003 Founder and President


Year(s) Award
1938 Remington Memorial Prize, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science
1977 Member, American Antiquarian Society
1984 Fellow, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia
1985 Wallace Award, American-Scottish Foundation
2004 Fellow, American Philosophical Society
2005 Gold Medal, American Institute of Chemists

Cite as

Robert L. McNeil, interviewed by Mary Ellen Bowden and Arnold Thackray in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on August 13, 2001. Philadelphia: Science History Institute, n.d. Oral History Transcript 0224. https://digital.sciencehistory.org/works/s7526d48r.

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The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

10 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads