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Remembering Arnold Demain, one of our giants

A pioneering research microbiologist for our company leaves behind an impressive legacy.

April 21, 2020

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Earlier this month former Merck employee Dr. Arnold “Arny” Demain, whose early work at our company focused on the synthesis of penicillin, passed away. He was 92.

He began his career at our company in 1954 as a research microbiologist, eventually founding and becoming the head of Fermentation Microbiology in Rahway before being recruited by MIT, where he was the professor of Industrial Microbiology.

“Arny loved working at Merck. Throughout his entire career, he still felt like a Merck employee,” says his daughter, Pam Demain. “He was a wonderful father and role model to me and my brother. Most importantly, he was a great person and we all feel fortunate to have known him.”

His early work at our company focused on the synthesis of penicillin, making key discoveries that unlocked the means to create semisynthetic versions of the lifesaving antibiotic. This work has been described as remarkable in its level of innovation and the process he devised for penicillin synthesis is still used today. In addition, Arny was considered a pioneer of the biotech industry through his work serving as the founding consultant for the early biotech company, Cetus Corporation.     

Over the course of his career, he published more than 500 papers, co-edited or co-authored 14 books and was granted 21 U.S. patents. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, president of the Society for Industrial Microbiology, and on the Board of Governors for the American Academy of Microbiology

He once remarked that, thanks to our company, “I learned that there was a lot more to applied microbiology than pickles and sauerkraut, and that microbes could be used to make antibiotics, produce commercial enzymes, convert steroids to be used for arthritis and rheumatism, make amino acids and vitamins for human and animal nutrition and make many medicinals for human and animal health.”

His impact will be felt for years to come, and he will be greatly missed across our community.