December 22, 1917–November 29, 1999
BY ARTHUR A. PATCHETT
LEWIS H. SARETT WAS the first chemist to synthesize cortisone. It was a feat of remarkable complexity involving nearly 40 chemical steps from desoxycholic acid and was achieved during World War II as a chemist in the Merck Research Laboratories. This synthesis and subsequent improvements of it ultimately led to cortisone’s use in treating rheumatoid arthritis and was the first of Sarett’s many contributions to medicine during a 40-year career at Merck. When he retired in 1982 he was senior vice-president for science and technology. He had been a key contributor to Merck’s growth, and in later years Sarett was an influential industry spokesman for U.S. science policy.
Lew Sarett was born in Champaign, Illinois, on December 22, 1917. His father was a professor of speech at Northwestern University, a poet, and an outdoorsman. The latter interest led him to locate his family in Laona in northern Wisconsin while he lived in Evanston, Illinois, for one semester of the school year. Lew enjoyed rural life, but the commuting ultimately became too much for his father, and the family moved back to Illinois, where Sarett attended high school in Highland Park. A beginner’s chemistry set introduced him to science, and with the encouragement of