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Kenneth C. Frazier

Pharmaceutical executive, lawyer, and corporate general counsel Kenneth C. Frazier was born on December 17, 1954 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to janitor and former sharecropper Otis Tindley Frazier and homemaker Clara Elizabeth Frazier. The second of three children, Frazier grew up in the deeply impoverished neighborhood of North Philadelphia. Frazier’s parents strongly encouraged education and hard work, ensuring that each of their children knew what it took to succeed. In 1966, when Frazier was twelve, his mother passed away, leaving Otis Frazier to raise three children alone. Frazier graduated from Northeast High School in Philadelphia before attending Pennsylvania State University. Upon completing his B.A. degree in 1975 with highest honors, Frazier enrolled at Harvard Law School, receiving his J.D. degree in 1978.

For the next fourteen years, Frazier worked as a lawyer and, eventually, partner at the Philadelphia law firm of Drinker, Biddle, & Reath. There he represented many corporate clients, including AlliedSignal and Merck & Co., Inc. However, the case which brought Frazier the most praise during this time was the pro bono work he contributed to freeing the innocent Willie “Bo” Cochran after twenty-one years on death row. Frazier accepted a position at Merck & Co., Inc in 1992. Frazier has served in various capacities at Merck, including general counsel, secretary, and vice president. During his tenure as general counsel, Frazier achieved great success in leading the company through more than 5,000 lawsuits regarding the alleged harmful effects of Vioxx.

In 2007, Frazier accepted the role of president of Merck & Co., Inc, and was given the additional roles of CEO and chairman in 2011, making him the first African American to serve as CEO of a major pharmaceutical company. Frazier has served on the boards of several organizations, such as Exxon Mobil, Penn State University, and Cornerstone Christian Academy, a private charter school serving at-risk youth in Philadelphia, which he also co-founded. Due to his professional success and his position on the board of trustees, Frazier was selected to lead the investigation of the allegations against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and university officials. Frazier has received numerous awards, including the 2001 Penn State Alumni Fellow Award, the Association of Corporate Counsel’s 2004 Excellence in Corporate Practice Award, and the Equal Justice Initiative’s 2009 Equal Justice Champion award.

Frazier lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, Andréa, and their son, James. Their daughter, Lauren, is an engineer.

Frazier was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on August 2, 2012.

Accession Number

A2012.124

Sex

Male

Interview Date

8/2/2012

Last Name

Frazier

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Middle Name

C.

Schools

M Hall Stanton Elementary School

Northeast High School

Pennsylvania State University

Harvard Law School

First Name

Kenneth

Birth City, State, Country

Philadelphia

HM ID

FRA09

Favorite Season

Summer

State

Pennsylvania

Favorite Vacation Destination

Bermuda

Favorite Quote

You Can Be Anything You Want To Be.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New Jersey

Birth Date

12/17/1954

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Whitehouse Station

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Pizza

Short Description

Pharmaceutical executive, lawyer, and corporate general counsel Kenneth C. Frazier (1954 - ) was the first African American to serve as CEO of a major pharmaceutical company and was known for his success in corporate law.

Employment

Merck & Co.

Astra Merck Group

Drinker Biddle & Reath

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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9
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Kenneth C. Frazier's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Kenneth C. Frazier lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Kenneth C. Frazier describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Kenneth C. Frazier describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Kenneth C. Frazier lists his siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Kenneth C. Frazier describes his household growing up

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Kenneth C. Frazier describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Kenneth C. Frazier remembers an influential teacher

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Kenneth C. Frazier describes the Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Kenneth C. Frazier remembers his mother's death

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Kenneth C. Frazier recalls the role of his maternal aunts after his mother's death

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Kenneth C. Frazier talks about his early understanding of race

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Kenneth C. Frazier remembers North East High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Kenneth C. Frazier talks about his influences at Nort East High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Kenneth C. Frazier recalls his admission to Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Kenneth C. Frazier remembers entering college at sixteen years old

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Kenneth C. Frazier recalls his decision to study political science and history

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Kenneth C. Frazier describes the racial discrimination at Pennsylvania State University

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Kenneth C. Frazier remembers his graduation from Pennsylvania State University

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Kenneth C. Frazier talks about his social life at the Harvard Law School

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Kenneth C. Frazier recalls his accomplishments at the Harvard Law School

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Kenneth C. Frazier remembers his club football team at the Harvard Law School

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Kenneth C. Frazier talks about the school busing crisis in Boston, Massachusetts

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Kenneth C. Frazier remembers his mentors at the Harvard Law School

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Kenneth C. Frazier remembers his first legal case

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Kenneth C. Frazier remembers the case of Cochran v. Herring

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Kenneth C. Frazier talks about African Americans in the law profession

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Kenneth C. Frazier remembers being one of two black partners at Drinker Biddle and Reath LLP

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Kenneth C. Frazier talks about his role as general counsel for a joint pharmaceutical venture

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Kenneth C. Frazier recalls his promotion to vice president of public affairs at Merck and Co., Inc.

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Kenneth C. Frazier remembers his promotion to general counsel of Merck and Co., Inc.

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Kenneth C. Frazier talks about the recall of Vioxx by Merck & Co., Inc.

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Kenneth C. Frazier explains his strategy as general counsel of Merck and Co., Inc.

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Kenneth C. Frazier talks about his perserverance during the Vioxx trial

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Kenneth C. Frazier remembers becoming the CEO of Merck and Co., Inc.

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Kenneth C. Frazier talks about his accomplishments at Merck and Co., Inc.

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Kenneth C. Frazier remembers being named CEO of Merck and Co., Inc.

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Kenneth C. Frazier talks about his performance as the CEO of Merck and Co., Inc.

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Kenneth C. Frazier talks about his role as the CEO of Merck and Co., Inc.

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Kenneth C. Frazier talks about his family

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Kenneth C. Frazier describes his involvement at Pennsylvania State University

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Kenneth C. Frazier talks about his interest in education

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Kenneth C. Frazier reflects upon his life

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Kenneth C. Frazier describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Kenneth C. Frazier describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Kenneth C. Frazier shares a message to future generations

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Kenneth C. Frazier narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

1$4

DAStory

10$7

DATitle
Kenneth C. Frazier remembers his mother's death
Kenneth C. Frazier remembers being named CEO of Merck and Co., Inc.
Transcript
So then high school, name of your high school?$$Was Northeast High School [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania]--the academic high school in Philadelphia [Pennsylvania] is called Central High School, but Northeast High School had just started a program for scientifically gifted children who were interested in the space exploration effort and I really was very interested in space and science. And so I chose to go Northeast High School to this program within there that was again sort of a magnet program for scientifically strong children.$$Now are your parents encouraging you in this regard?$$Well there's an important fact that we've not covered in the academic thing which is that, when I was in the seventh grade, my mother [Clara Frazier] passed away. So at this point, I had only my father [Otis Frazier] who raised me.$$And your father is raising two other children in addition to you?$$Correct.$$So in seventh grade, that's you're what you're twelve?$$Something like that.$$Twelve, thirteen, something around that age?$$Uh-hm.$$That had to be devastating?$$It was, it was, I have to say the most pivotal moment in my life because my mother died of a blood clot that was secondary to a hysterectomy. So she went into the hospital to have a pro- a procedure that I wouldn't call routine, but it was also not something that where we thought she was sick and in jeopardy of her life. And I can still remember my father, we came downstairs to go to school and my father said, "There's something I need to tell you kids and it's that your mother died last night." And I sa- you, know, I can still remember it like was yesterday, how devastating that was.$$And you made it through the seventh grade even this, I mean academically well and in spite of (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Oh yes.$$And was that because of your father?$$Yes.$$Tell us a little bit, what your father did. How he kept you guys, how he moved you guys through this?$$Well let me just put it this way. My father was a wonderful man, but he was not very sentimental about his children. And he had very high standards and I remember, I didn't finish the story. We were all devastated when my mother died and I remember he said, "You guys, you kids go up to your room and you can cry a little bit, but when you come down, we're going to have to keep going in life." And we did cry a little bit, but we came down and we had breakfast. And my father said, "Life goes on." And my father was very distant man before then because I think like many families of that time, the mother was the nurturer, the one that raised us. My father, his job in the family was to work and earn money and to hand out the discipline when my mother encouraged him to do that. He taught us obviously how to throw a baseball and things like that. But, like unlike modern parenting where I think my children [Lauren Frazier and James Frazier] feel like they know me, I didn't feel like I knew my father. I knew my mother, my mother was the, was the nurturing parent. And then when she died suddenly my father had to step into that role, and I think that for him it was a great opportunity. Years later he would say, "I would not have even known my children had my wife died." But he, he became the mother and the father. He had no domestic skills but he learned to cook, he learned to do all the things that you needed to do to raise children.$Let's move on to the day that you become chairman of this company. You've been here what (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) CEO.$$CEO.$$First I became CEO and then chairman$$CEO and then chairman. But you've been at Merck [Merck and Co., Inc.] about what seventeen years when you become the CEO?$$Yes.$$Tell, tell me about that day. What was that when the announcement was made, and how you felt and what it meant, what's your thought?$$I felt overwhelmed by the announcement. I've never been a person to feel glad that I got somewhere. My wife [Andrea Wilkerson Frazier] always says, you don't enjoy anything because you're always on to the next thing. So when I became CEO, I was worried about whether or not I could run this company in a way that I would make a very satisfactory mark as CEO. I knew I felt really good when, I can't lie when the announcement came out and I looked at it and I realized I'm the CEO of Merck and my father [Otis Frazier] had a third grade education and was a janitor, I felt really good about that. My family felt really good about that. But I really am honest when I say that it's really not about me. This company Merck is no ordinary place. The work that we do here is incredibly important to mankind. And so, if you step into that CEO role. My office, I feel like I'm renting that office and that it's my obligation to leave this company better than I found it. And so, I think my overwhelming feeling was a feeling of huge, awesome responsibility. And if you knew the scientific enterprise of this company and the people who comprise it, the quality of the scientists and the physicians who make up the core of our research labs. In some ways, you're saying, I'm a mere mortal. How can I be the CEO of people that are that sort of otherworldly smart? And so, I also say, how can I do my job so that I can enable great science since I'm not a scientist. So it's not a kind of thing that you feel very--at least I don't feel very egotistical about it. I feel like I have to prove to the world that my tenure here put this company back on track to greatness.$$Well let's talk a little bit about the symbolic torch at, at Merck that gets passed from one CEO to the next CEO. You, you were telling me a little bit about that previously. Tell us about that on the record?$$Well I think--again I say this is not the ordinary company and one of the exemplars of that is that the modern day founder of Merck is a guy named George W. Merck and he had a saying that every Merck employee knows by heart. He said, "Medicine is for the people, not the profits," and the more we've remembered that the better the profits have been and then he went on to say that, "It's our obligation to ensure that our finest achievement," meaning the medicine and vaccines we created, "are made available to everybody." So everybody knows that and there is a Time magazine article from I believe it's 1951 [sic. 1952] where he made, a, a medical school commencement speech in which he uttered those words. He became a cover story of Time in 1951. And that Time magazine (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) The year you were born. No sorry, I'm wrong sorry.$$No, I was born in 1954, but it's, that, that Time magazine, the original magazine is preserved in a, in a glass case and that glass case is handed from one CEO to the next CEO and you're supposed to display it prominently in your office as a reminder that, that's what this company is about. It's about the people, not the profits. And although, we're under the same pressure any other publicly traded company is, I think it's my obligation all the time to remember that while I have to do the short term performance that drives the stock price. What I'm really here is to create long term medical value and societal value. If I do that, that would drive the economic value, which in term will drive the stock price.$$So when you say this is no ordinary place. Then for you, it's a very special place.$$It is, I mean you just look at any indicator of the number of Nobel Prize winners. The work that was done to commercialize penicillin. The work that was done to commercialize the corticosteroids. The work--something like thirteen of the seventeen vaccines that are required for American children are made by this company. So the, the nation trust its newborn to us. The work that we've done in past on HIV [human immunodeficiency virus], which I've talked about a few minutes ago. Work that we're doing on cardiovascular and infectious diseases. What this company has done single handily to expand life expectancy. The work that we've done in Africa where by donating products, we've almost eradicated a horrible series of diseases exemplified by river blindness. When you come to work in a company like that and you realize that the company exists to alleviate human suffering, if you just say that, the company's reason for existing is to apply cutting edge science to develop medically important products, vaccines, and medicines that alleviate human suffering and improve and extend human life. It is no ordinary place.