In 1935 (decades before “values statements” became popular), George Merck II penned the ideals that would guide his company to greatness: “[We] are workers in industry who are genuinely inspired by the ideals of advancement of medical science, and of service to humanity.”
With these ideals as a backdrop, we’re not surprised that more than 50 years later, Merck elected to develop and give away Mectizan, a drug to cure “river blindness,” a disease that infected over a million people in the Third World with parasitic worms that caused painful blindness. Knowing that the project would not produce a large return on investment - if it produced one at all - the company nonetheless went forward. When even governments would not buy the product for their own infected people, Merck elected to give the drug away free to all who needed it. Merck also involved itself to directly reach the millions of people at risk from the disease, at its own expense.
Asked why Merck that decision, then ceo Roy Vagelos pointed
out that failure to go forward with the product could have demoralized Merck
scientists - scientists working for a company that explicitly viewed itself as
“in the business of preserving and improving human life.” He also said:
"When I first went to Japan fifteen years ago, I was told by Japanese business people that it was Merck that brought streptomycin to Japan after World War II, to eliminate tuberculosis, which was eating up their society. We did that. We didn’t make any money. But it’s no accident that Merck is the largest American pharmaceutical company in Japan today. The long-term consequences of [such actions] are not always clear, but somehow I think they always pay off.”