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John E. McKeen
President (1949 – 1965) Chairman of the Board (1950 – 1968)
Twenty-three-year old John McKeen came to Pfizer in 1926 after earning a degree in chemical engineering at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. His first job was to put his chemical know-how to use in evaluating anticorrosive paints and coatings on plant equipment. Thus began a 47-year, up-through-the-ranks career that saw McKeen serving as president from 1949 to 1965, as chairman from 1950 to 1968, and as a director from 1942 until his retirement in 1973 at the age of 70.
During his early years, McKeen quickly gained a firsthand understanding of all aspects of Pfizer operations, and he also caught the eye of John Smith. In 1935, he was sent to London to help design and construct a British affiliate's citric acid fermentation plant.
As a result of the success of this project, he was named assistant superintendent at Brooklyn in 1938, and was promoted to plant superintendent four years later. Construction of the first-of-its-kind, 10,000-gallon, deep-tank penicillin production facility, which enabled Pfizer to manufacture half the world's penicillin by the end of World War II, was completed in the first four months that McKeen served as superintendent.
McKeen was in the habit of making daily rounds throughout the plant and recording everything that was going on in a small notebook. Within a few years, McKeen had learned the first names of thousands of employees, whom he would greet as he walked around the plant. The year Pfizer celebrated its 100th anniversary - 1949 - McKeen became president. Pfizer entered the pharmaceutical business the following year with Terramycin® (oxytetracycline), the first drug to be sold under the Company's label. A sign of things to come, Terramycin® sales jumped from zero to approximately $45 million in just two years. When McKeen stepped down as chief executive officer in 1965, annual sales had soared to $500 million, which was, in McKeen's own words, "only a beginning."
The Company had diversified through the acquisition of 38 domestic and foreign businesses and through its entry into specialty chemicals, consumer health products and fragrances, vitamins, animal vaccines, and pigments and oxides. In 1961, reflecting this dynamic growth, Pfizer opened its 32-story World Headquarters Building in midtown Manhattan.