Hall Monitor

Edward Robinson Squibb helped set the standard for medicines in the 19th century.

By Lee Sullivan Berry | October 30, 2014
Edward Robinson Squibb

A portrait of Edward Robinson Squibb, pharmaceutical pioneer, that hangs in the Institute’s offices.

the Institute Collections/Gregory Tobias

In the summer 2014 magazine we wrote about a portrait of Charles II that resides in the halls of CHF. What we didn’t say is that Charles has a neighbor, a mild-looking, elderly gentleman who appears a bit surprised by the company he finds himself keeping.

Edward Robinson Squibb was born in 1819 to Quaker parents in Wilmington, Delaware. After graduating from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia at age 26, Squibb accepted a commission as an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Navy, a decision that resulted in his expulsion from the pacifist Quakers. During four years at sea Squibb was appalled by the poor quality, inaccurate labeling, and lack of standardization of the medical supplies on board his ship, and he embarked on what would become a lifelong crusade for uniformity in pharmaceuticals.

Squibb convinced the navy that higher-quality medicines could be produced at lower cost, and in 1848 he was placed in charge of the Navy Medical Laboratories in Brooklyn, New York. By 1854 he had decisively proved his point, perfecting a method of distilling ether with steam to create a purer and more reliable anesthetic. (He later developed a similar process for chloroform.) He refused to patent his process, in part as a reaction to the quackery he despised in the patent medicines of his day but also because of his conviction that medical discoveries belonged to those who could benefit from them.

In 1858 Squibb resigned his commission and opened a small commercial laboratory in Brooklyn. Just as the fledgling operation was getting off the ground, an assistant dropped a bottle of ether near an open flame. The resulting fire destroyed the laboratory and left Squibb with devastating facial injuries. The beard he wears in CHF’s portrait covers some of the scars, but the damage to his eyelids was impossible to conceal. What appears as an expression of surprise is actually the result of this scarring.

Squibb rebuilt his laboratory. When war broke out in 1861, he received a contract to supply medicine to the Union army; government contracts soon accounted for the majority of his now booming business. Much of that business consisted of the sale of panniers—portable wooden medicine chests filled with more than 50 commonly used medicines. These 88-pound panniers were designed to be used by field surgeons and could be transported by pack mule or wagon.

During the second half of the 19th century, revisions to the United States Pharmacopeia transformed it from a pharmacist’s recipe book into a set of standards for the emerging drug industry. Squibb’s lab was instrumental in that process. In 1880 he drafted a pure food and drug act for New York State and subsequently one for New Jersey, both of which served as models for the federal Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906.

After Squibb’s death in 1900 a colleague remembered him as a man who “brought safety into the operating room and precision into the sick chamber.” The business he built continues to this day. In 1989 E. R. Squibb and Sons merged with Bristol-Myers Corporation to form Bristol-Myers Squibb.