A needle punctures the skin, emptying its contents to soothe an aching joint. This magical elixir, a steroid called “cortisone,” reduces inflammation, restoring pain-free motion to once impaired limbs.
The substance, which occurs naturally in the body, was first synthesized in a lab by Lewis H. Sarett, a chemist at Merck Research Laboratories during World War II.
Using nearly 40 chemical steps, Sarett’s team converted desoxycholic acid into cortisone, which proved useful in controlling rheumatoid arthritis. For Sarett, this discovery just the beginning.
As head of medicinal chemistry at Merck, he continued to innovate. Recognizing the drawbacks of steroids, he helped develop nonsteroidal drugs for treating arthritis, including Indocin, Clinoril, and Dolobid.
In 1969, he became president of Merck Sharp and Dohme Research Laboratories. Under his guidance, the company developed some of its biggest products including Vasotec and Prinivil, used to treat high blood pressure, and the cholesterol-lowering drug Mevacor.