Merck's Frazier: Joining the Ranks of the "Scientifically Illiterate"?

Fewer and fewer of the men (and occasionally women) that are chosen to head up drug companies come from a scientific background. Most are businesspeople by trade, or perhaps accountants and economists. Merck's incoming CEO Ken Frazier, who takes over for Richard Clark upon his forced retirement at 65, is a lawyer. This expertise has come in handy in helping the company navigate the Vioxx crisis. (For a bit of background, here is an old Fast Company blog item that tells the story of Frazier in his early days as a Philadelphia attorney who volunteered his services to overturn the conviction of a death-row inmate—the man was eventually proven innocent and freed after 19 years in prison.)

Does it really matter what your CEO has done in the past? BNet's Jim Edwards considered this question on his blog last week, when the Frazier news was announced: Are "scientifically illiterate" CEOs in pharma less competent than those from science backgrounds? His answer: probably yes. He quotes an advisor to Eli Lilly: "Not all the non-scientist CEOs have been bad. I mean, some of them,even though they are not trained as scientists, have very good intuition and are doing a terrific job.But they are the exception to the rule. I mean, if you look at the record, there are certainly scientifically illiterate CEOs that have been a disaster for the industry in my opinion." This advisor is biased, as he's paid by a firm whose head, John Lechleiter, has an advanced degree in organic chemistry. See below for Edwards' list of the top pharma chief executives and their backgrounds.

And now that Kindler is out at Pfizer, will a scientist fill the void? (Any volunteers out there?) Would you want the position? According to reports, Kindler had simply had enough. The long hours and business pressures of running the world’s largest drug company took their toll, and, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, “he was becoming increasingly frazzled.” His wife urged him to quit, and apparently the Pfizer board, which had been concerned about both his performance and temperament, didn’t try to talk him out of it. (I can't help but think of Kindler while watching Season 2 of the HBO series “In Treatment,” in which actor John Mahoney, aka the dad on "Frasier", plays the embattled CEO of a consumer products company, struggling to keep his wits, and job, amid a growing baby formula recall scandal.)

Anyway, appreciation to BNet's Edwards for this list:

   1. Pfizer, Jeff Kindler, lawyer
   2. Merck, Ken Frazier, lawyer
   3. Novartis, Joe Jimenez, MBA
   4. Sanofi-Aventis, Chris Viehbacher, CPA
   5. GlaxoSmithKline, Andrew Witty, BA in economics
   6. AstraZeneca, David Brennan, business administration
   7. Roche, Severin Schwan, lawyer
   8. Johnson & Johnson, William Weldon, BA in biology
   9. Eli Lilly, John Lechleiter, doctorate in organic chemistry
  10. Abbott Labs, Miles White, MBA

--Paul Thomas