• jeffreypkiplinger

Short Viagra Story

I mentioned Viagra recently as an example of the difficulty in defining unmet need. In 1995, we in R&D at Pfizer began to hear from the leadership about a new compound progressing fast in clinical development - a compound that gave impotent men erections. In 1995, impotence was an easy joke in movies and on TV. A character would invariably say "this has never happened to me before!". The leadership made us laugh nervously in briefings, which encouraged even the President of Global R&D to make comments about "penetrating new markets" and "rising above the competition." I'd like to think I cringed (I certainly do now, knowing the next 20 years of Viagra history), although I probably played along too.


In February 1998 I traveled to a conference in Scandinavia and spent a weekend in Amsterdam. One night after a couple of glasses of wine I returned to my hotel and found a group of British tourists in the lobby bar. When they heard me ask for my key in English they invited me over to share another drink with them, and I joined them. Among them were a nice older couple from Lancashire, Marvin and Em.


Someone asked what I did, and I told them I was a scientist with a pharmaceutical company called Pfizer. No one had heard of Pfizer - this was before DTC television advertising. I said "but you will hear of us - we're developing a new drug that will give impotent men erections!" I thought this would be entertaining.


Marvin looked me right in the eye and said "Young man, I haven't had an erection in seven years". Em was also looking directly at me. No embarrassment or shame at all. Now I was the center of attention in a way I hadn't calculated.


I pulled out one of my business cards, and wrote sildenafil and the newly assigned trade name for Viagra on the back. I handed it to Marvin. I said "I don't know if it will help, but this goes on the market later this year. Ask your doctor about it, it will need a prescription. But if it works, send me a Christmas card!"


On December 15 that year I received an envelope with only "Marvin and Em, Lancs" written as a return address. Inside was a little card picturing a snowman, and inside it the word "Yippee!".

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