On the Shoulders
Science has always been crowdsourced. That is, every scientific discovery builds on the insights of yesterday’s researchers, just as tomorrow’s breakthroughs will be influenced by what’s happening in labs and on computers today.
Isaac Newton put it best when he wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Charles Pfizer founded our company 175 years ago, balancing on the shoulders of those who had gone before him. To honor the breakthroughs that keep motivating us, we’re sharing the stories of inspirational scientists, including Rosalind Franklin, Dr. Marie Maynard Daly, and Sir Isaac Newton.
The contributions below have helped change the course of history and health. They’ve served as foundations to build on, as Pfizer’s scientists of today — like Kena Swanson whom we celebrate below — strive to help prevent, treat and cure some of the world’s most vexing diseases and conditions, and outdo cancer.
In 1849, cousins Charles Pfizer and Charles Erhart took a massive gamble: they launched Charles Pfizer & Company with a $2,500 loan and a dream to build one of America’s first chemical companies.
The two had arrived in New York City following a six-week journey across the Atlantic from their native Germany. With experience in chemistry (Pfizer) and confection (Erhart) they sought to supply the growing U.S. market with home-grown products. Working from their humble early digs in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, they could use tariff laws to their benefit and sell their wares to America’s growing manufacturing, agricultural and medical industries at a lower price than the overseas competition.
The first breakthrough was a drug called santonin, which had the power to kill a common intestinal parasite. Many people avoided the drug, to the detriment of their health, because of its bitter taste. So to mask the flavor, Pfizer and Erhart blended santonin with an almond-toffee flavoring, shaping it into a candy cone. It was a success. In the years that followed, the company would create many more important and innovative products, from medicines that helped soldiers injured in wars to a vaccine that changed the course of a pandemic.
Over time, Pfizer became a part of the fabric of history and healthcare. In 2023, alone, Pfizer’s medicines and vaccines reached more than 1.3 billion people, or one out of every six people on earth. In 2024, the company is celebrating its 175th anniversary, with a mission to outdo yesterday.
Charles Pfizer’s vision for quality, which he shared with spectators 125 years ago, still rings true today: “Our goal has been and always continues to be the same: to find a way to produce the highest quality products, and to perfect the most efficient way to accomplish this, in order to best serve our customers.”
She’s responsible for what’s known as “one of the most important photos ever taken.” A photo so powerful, it helped unlock the mystery of life.
Her name is Rosalind Franklin, and in 1952, after earning her PhD, she worked as a research fellow at a college in London studying DNA. At the time, scientists were in a race to understand DNA’s structure. Using a tool called X-ray crystallography, Franklin and a research assistant took several photos, and the legendary Photo 51 revealed the double-helix structure of DNA.
Of course, this was in the 1950s, and the story of Franklin’s photo is both inspiring and maddening. According to “The Rosalind Franklin Papers,” published by the National Library of Medicine, Photo 51 and a summary of her unpublished research was shown to two other scientists without her consent. Those men—Francis Crick and James Watson—went on to build the first accurate model of a DNA molecule and wrote a paper about the discovery of its structure without acknowledging the role that Franklin played. Franklin, herself, requested to be transferred to a different lab, and went on uncover important findings about viruses, publishing many papers on the topic. In fact, this is memorialized on her tombstone: “Her research and discoveries on viruses remain of lasting benefit to mankind.”
In 1956, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and died at age 37. Franklin’s story lives on, sometimes as a parable about misogyny, other times as an inspiring tale of what women can do, even when the deck is stacked against them. Her work, too, is as relevant as ever. As the molecule that carries the genetic information for almost all living things, DNA is the building block of life. Understanding its structure was a breakthrough in genetics, and in the analysis of diseases and disorders. Today, understanding DNA is also critical to understanding things like cancer, and developing new cancer treatments.
Dr. Marie Maynard Daly fell in love with science while turning the pages of Microbe Hunters, a book that tells the story of the people who discovered the causes of different diseases. This was in the 1920s and 1930s, and none of the scientists in the book looked like her—a Black girl growing up in Queens, New York. But that didn’t stop her from following her dreams. She attended graduate school at a time when her classmates were predominantly men; she worked in a chemistry lab led by the department’s only female faculty member. In 1947, Dr. Daly became the first African-American woman in the U.S. to receive her doctorate in chemistry.
She went on to study heart health, uncovering new understandings about the impact of diet and cholesterol on blood pressure and arteries in rats, which Harvard University called “groundbreaking” at the time. She also studied proteins called histones, which are important for gene expression, and her insights helped advance the understanding of DNA.
When people describe Dr. Daly today, they often use words like “superhero,” “trailblazer” and “pioneer.” Another important word is “mentor,” a role she took seriously. She sought to encourage more minority students to pursue careers in science and medicine, and in 1988, she even established a college scholarship for Black science students. While it’s true that Dr. Daly, herself, wouldn’t have had many Black, female scientists to look up to when she was a child, today, she serves as that person for multiple generations.
According to legend, Isaac Newton was sitting beneath an apple tree, pondering the mysteries of the universe, when an apple bonked him on the head. It inspired him to think up the theory of gravity, which explains the force of attraction between masses. Whether exaggeration or fact, this story, and the ensuing mathematical formula that arose from it, is foundational in classrooms nearly 300 years after Newton died.
Described by New Scientist magazine as “the supreme genius and most enigmatic character in the history of science,” Newton is practically synonymous with “brilliance.” He’s the father of calculus and the creator of the modern telescope; he devised laws that explain the motion of the universe. He made groundbreaking discoveries about optics and color. He was knighted by England’s Queen Anne in 1705. And, of course, Newton acknowledged that none of his scientific discoveries were happening in a silo. Built on learnings of the brilliant minds before him — like Galileo, who died the year he was born — Newton came up with theories that would then inform and inspire people after him, like Albert Einstein, who called Newton a “shining spirit” on the 200th anniversary of his death. Just as Newton once paid homage to the scientific giants he learned from, today, it’s his shoulders that continue to give science, and modern scientists, a boost.
Pfizer Celebrates Today’s
Scientists, Like Kena Swanson
In high school, Kena Swanson fell in love with science. She remembers the feeling of surprise and exhilaration watching bacteria grow in a petri dish. In her post-doctoral studies, it was the immune system that intrigued her, and the notion that human biology could be activated to protect people from getting sick. That went on to become her career focus at Pfizer.
As vice president, viral vaccines, Swanson has contributed to the development of a number of vaccines, including COVID-19 and the first FDA approved RSV vaccine for infants and older adults. But she says that breakthroughs like these rely on countless scientists throughout history. “The COVID-19 vaccine is a perfect example,” she says. “There were thousands of scientists and hundreds of baby-step discoveries along the way that made it possible.” The RSV vaccine, she adds, also builds on foundational, basic-science discoveries.
When Swanson reflects on the scientists who have shaped and inspired her, personally, her mind goes to Rosalind Franklin, whom she holds in such high regard, she gave her youngest daughter the middle name Rosalind.
“Rosalind Franklin is just a great example of how anybody can do it, as long as they have the passion and the aptitude to keep pushing the boundaries,” she says. “And, of course, at that time, unfortunately, she didn't get the credit for it.”
Swanson is grateful that times have changed. The leadership team she’s part of at Pfizer, for example, is made up entirely of women. And the up-and-coming scientists she meets come from all kinds of backgrounds. She loves connecting with those young minds at school events, like high school career fairs and science competitions, where she encourages students to pursue work that they love. And to find a career that will give them the same kind of excitement that she’s found in science.