Photo of Robert A. Swanson

Robert A. Swanson

  • National Medal of Technology and Innovation
  • Medicine

For his foresight and leadership in recognizing the commercial promise of recombinant DNA technology and his seminal role in the establishment and development of the biotechnology industry.

Although Robert Swanson’s life was short, it was brilliant. In 1976, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen pioneered the science of recombinant DNA, or the recombination of genetically engineered DNA molecules, but it was Swanson who had the vision for its future. A 10-minute meeting with Boyer at a San Francisco bar turned into a three-hour dive into the potentials of the new technology, and by the end, Genentech was born.

Swanson passed away from brain cancer in 1999 at the age of 52, but what he and the Genentech team accomplished in his 20 years with the company laid the groundwork for the entire biotechnology industry today. In 1978, Genentech successfully created synthetic insulin for diabetics, and in 1985 earned FDA approval for its human growth hormone in use for children unable to produce enough of the hormone on their own. Both drugs were the first gene-splicing pharmaceuticals ever approved by the FDA.

Swanson retired as chairman of Genentech’s board in 1996, three short years before his death.

By Lauren Clason