John Wyeth & Brother: A Family Legacy in the History of Pharmacy


By Dan Flanagan

It’s difficult to say what ultimately attracted JOHN WYETH PhG1854 (1834–1907) to a pharmacy career; nothing in his family background would have predicted it. But aside from his choice of profession, the kind of celebrity he achieved was hardly unique among the Wyeths.

Quote3The family’s origins go back to the landing of Nicholas Wyeth (c.1595– 1680), in New Town, Massachusetts, in 1630. Nicholas emigrated from England with his brother Thomas, whose line became extinct upon the suspected murder of his great-grandson George Wythe (1726–1806), a signer of the Declaration of Independence and professor of law at William and Mary College.

Nicholas Wyeth’s line, by happy comparison, quickly flourished into numerous offshoots that spread across the Middle Atlantic States. The spelling of the Wyeth name might have been different on this side of the family but their zeal for American independence was exactly the same. Ebenezer Wyeth, Jr. (1727–1799), a great-grandson of Nicholas, served as a minuteman at the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill, alongside his brothers, Noah (1741–1811) and Jonas (1730–1801).

In addition to being Revolutionary War heroes, the brothers Ebenezer and Noah are the respective paternal ancestors of the pharmacist John Wyeth and the artist N.C. Wyeth.

Not to be eclipsed by his elders, Joshua Wyeth (1758–1829), a young son of Ebenezer’s, took an active role in the Boston Tea Party. His account of the  participant.

Dr. John Allen Wyeth (1845–1922) was a trailblazer of a different kind. He established the New York Polyclinic Graduate Medical School and Hospital in 1881 and is hailed today as the “founder of postgraduate medical education in America.” Frank

Interestingly, Doctor Wyeth is the pharmacist’s first cousin; both men are named after their grandfather John (1770– 1858), who carried the family name from Cambridge Massachusetts, to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where our John Wyeth, the pharmacist, was born in 1834.

The Wyeth family prospered in Harrisburg, especially in the fields of publishing, bookselling, and real estate; none of which appealed to the young John Wyeth. As a boy he took his first job in a drug store in Pittsburgh and eventually made his way to Philadelphia (c.1852) where he apprenticed with Henry C. Blair while completing the two-year course at PCP. Following his 1854 graduation, Wyeth stayed on at Blair’s where his younger brother FRANK (1836–1913) joined him for his one-year stint at PCP during the session of 1857–58. Their close ties to the kindly Mr. Blair only intensified after John Wyeth became partners with his old boss in 1858. Two years later the brothers left the Blair establishment to open their own store at 1412 Walnut Street, but the year 1860 would be remembered for more portentous things than the founding of “John Wyeth & Brother.” Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election that fall, and on December 20, South Carolina became the first of 11 states to secede from the Union. The war that followed had a profound effect upon the fortunes of the fledgling drug firm.

EdwardTo guarantee sufficient supplies of reliable drugs, the U.S. Army found it necessary to restrict their pharmaceutical purchases to a select few businesses in various cities. In Philadelphia most of these orders went to John Wyeth & Brother. This sparked the phenomenal  department, which ultimately led to the sale of the retail business in 1885.

After the war ended, the Wyeth firm adjusted to the new business environment by adding a new partner to the firm in 1866. EDWARD T. DOBBINS PhG1862 started working in Wyeth’s store right after he graduated and subsequently moved into manufacturing. He also distinguished himself on the board of trustees at PCP where a memorial scholarship was established after his death in 1906.

Great advances were made in the succeeding years, like the invention of the first rotary tablet press by Wyeth employee Henry Bower in 1872. This rendered the old hand press obsolete and enabled pills to be beautifully mass produced in uniform size, shape, and dosage. This marked the dawn of a new era of “elegant pharmacy,” emphasizing the preparation’s appearance, style, and packaging and with it came new terms, like “compressed tablet” trademarked by Wyeth in 1874. Meanwhile, the first exports to England and Canada were transacted, and the Swiss chemist Herman Wipf was recruited to oversee production of America’s first glycerin suppositories. This was more important than you might think as hollow needles and injection medications weren’t commonly available until the 1880s. In the meantime suppositories were the best alternative for delivering “the most potent and nauseous remedies,” and Wyeth duly showcased them at the 1876 Centennial Exposition.

By 1891 production in Philadelphia had reached 1,000,000 tablets per day, and according to a vignette published that year, Wyeth’s products were “as well known in the principal cities and towns of Europe, South America, Australia, East and West Indies, China and Japan, as to every medical man and drug house in the United States.” Inroads were apparently being made into Africa, too, in that the “entire medical outfit” of “Henry M. Stanley, the African explorer” consisted of Wyeth tablets. Maxwell

The future looked bright at the turn of the 20th century, but it also marked the inevitable changing of the guard at John Wyeth & Brother. First came the passing of Edward Dobbins in 1906 and then the death of John Wyeth from pneumonia in 1907. In the wake of these tragedies, Frank Wyeth retired at the age of 71 to clear the way for a new pair of leaders.

Stuart Wyeth (1862–1929) received his BA from Harvard in 1884 and graduated with a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1887. He began working for the company in 1893 and became president after the death of his father, John Wyeth.

MAXWELL WYETH (1866–1936) graduated from PCP in 1888 and immediately went to work in the laboratories beside his father, Frank Wyeth, whom he now succeeded as vice president. Unfortunately the cousins, with their starkly different personalities and educational backgrounds, were not as compatible as their predecessors, and Maxwell resigned in 1913, the same year his father died. He did, however, maintain a presence on the board of directors and at the time of Stuart’s death on New Year’s Eve in 1929, Maxwell remained his nearest living relative. Be that as it may, Stuart bequeathed controlling interest in the company to his alma mater Harvard University, which sold John Wyeth & Brother to American Home Products (AHP) for $2.9 million in 1932.

WyethRotaryTabletPressAHP was not in the business of making things, but it built an empire by acquiring many companies that did. Its name never appeared on any labels (the standing joke was that “AHP” really meant “Anonymous Home Products”), but it owned an astonishing collection of products like Black Flag, Chef Boy-Ar-Dee, Easy-Off, Woolite, Old English, 3-in- One-Oil, Jiffy Pop, Sani- Flush, Wizard—the list goes on and on. Needless to say, AHP had a spectacular advertising budget that included the underwriting of popular daytime dramas like Love of Life and The Secret Storm (who could forget when 64-year-old Joan Crawford stepped in to play the role of her 29-year-old daughter Christina).

But ever since its beginning in 1926, AHP also had a penchant for picking-up drug companies, and in 1943 they rolled six of them into John Wyeth & Brother to create a new corporate entity— “Wyeth Laboratories.” Similar mergers into the Wyeth organization would follow before AHP made the momentous decision to focus exclusively on pharmaceuticals and spin-off every thing else. At the end of this process, in 2002, AHP boldly changed its name to “Wyeth” and became one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world—only not as big as Pfizer, which acquired them in 2009 for $68 billion.

Although the AHP incarnation of “Wyeth” had come to an end, there still existed within Pfizer’s vast corporate structure a subsidiary known as “Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories” (the product of a merger in 1987 between the two companies). This was the direct lineal descendant of the original “John Wyeth & Brother” company. Today it’s known as “Wyeth Pharmaceuticals,” and it has five subdivisions: research, prescription products, biotech, vaccines, and nutritionals.

Like the family itself, the famous Wyeth company lives on through its   branches and offshoots, generation after generation, forging into the future in the same restless spirit that brought Nicholas Wyeth to the New World over  of a better tomorrow.

“Wyeth: A History Through Artifacts” (through October 2, 2015)

The newest exhibition in the Marvin Samson Center for the History of Pharmacy celebrates the legacy of JOHN WYETH PhG 1854, founder of the multinational pharmaceutical corporation that bore his name. The over 300 objects on display include manuscripts, ledgers, letters, ephemera, advertisements, prints, photographs, books, periodicals, devices, and drug bottles, containers, and packaging that document distinct moments in Wyeth’s complex 150-year history. These items are part of the large archive that Wyeth gifted to USciences in 2009. For more on the exhibition, click here.


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