The times and triumphs of Jack Whitehead, biomedical entrepreneur extraordinaire
By Eric Bender
When Leonard Skeggs arrived at Jack Whitehead’s family business with his blood-analysis invention, it didn’t seem like a great moment in medical history.
In 1954, Skeggs already was an accomplished medical researcher and innovator. His device addressed the major problem of slow and sloppy manual blood analyses that had plagued his clinical work.
His machine, though, was a crazy-looking contraption that had been turned down repeatedly by larger manufacturers. And when Skeggs tried to demonstrate it, with blood samples from himself and his wife, it didn’t work.
But Jack Whitehead loved the concept behind the machine: continuous analysis of a stream of blood samples. He inked a deal with Skeggs, and his firm, Technicon, ended up pouring millions of dollars into making the device practical.
in 1957, the AutoAnalyzer was backed by Whitehead’s sheer determination and
hard-won expertise in creating, selling, supporting and litigating over medical
equipment. It revolutionized clinical analysis, and the huge success of the
AutoAnalyzer and its heirs made Whitehead one of the richest men in the
Two years after the public offering, Whitehead, with the help of Skeggs and other distinguished friends and advisors, launched a 10-year quest to make what became Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.
On that journey, as he had all his life, Whitehead made indelible impressions on his business associates, friends and family. Decades later, they tell about his unquenchable enthusiasm, his addiction to skiing (and astonishing misadventures on the slopes), his blunt talk and ability to ask the one absolutely key question, his commitment to philanthropy, the red carnation that he wore every day on his lapel, and the time he woke up from heart surgery and fixed a broken machine in the intensive-care unit.
“He would push you to see how far you could go yourself,” says Dina McCabe, a friend and the wife of longtime Whitehead Institute Board Member Robert McCabe. “He had this great joy for life, and it was contagious.”
Just as striking was Whitehead’s single-minded pursuit of excellence in biomedicine and the rest of life. “He was a man who believed in himself,” says David Baltimore, Founding Director of Whitehead Institute. “I think that is a characteristic of great entrepreneurs, for better or worse. They are people who have a vision and are not afraid to follow that vision.”
Born Edwin C. Weiskopf in
father's parents divorced when he was a preteen, and his mother went to work
selling real estate in
child, Jack liked sports, as he did all his life, and he was proud that he
played football in high school. He dropped out of the
In the late nineteenth century,
Jack’s grandfather Abraham Weiskopf started a firm that sold lab equipment,
mostly glassware imported from
During the mid-1940s, around the time Jack joined Technicon, the company’s headliner was the AutoTechnicon, the world's first automated slide preparation machine. “By standardizing the preparation of medical slides for microscopic viewing, the AutoTechnicon moved histopathology from an art to a science and greatly advanced the accuracy of medical diagnoses,” says John Whitehead. “Two pathologists looking at a tissue could start to agree.”
“In the early years, the company’s success was limited,” recalls Henry Allen, a cousin who later worked for Technicon. “Jack gradually eased himself into the position of power. He and his father sat at desks that faced each other. They argued a great deal, but somehow they got along.”
“Jack was a tough cookie,” Allen adds. “He was difficult to work for and to work with at times, but he usually was right. Not everyone loved him every moment, but they respected him.”
“He was very smart, very curious, very energetic, and optimistic enough to want to try finding new solutions to old medical problems,” says John Whitehead. Among the results were devices that greatly speeded up chromatography, freed a generation of polio victims from the prison of iron lungs, introduced modern electrocardiography, and made large-scale battlefield blood transfusions practical, he says.
Technicon remained mildly profitable but small—until the AutoAnalyzer hit the market in 1957.
With its offbeat design, based on analyzing a stream of blood samples separated by air bubbles, the AutoAnalyzer did away with the slow, clumsy and error-prone manual approaches to blood analysis. “You could automatically test the samples and get answers in minutes rather than days,” says Henry Allen. “The quality of analyses enormously advanced; you could do hundreds or thousands of tests relatively inexpensively and very reliably.”
This was a genuine breakthrough, and after painful experiences with Technicon’s other innovations, Whitehead knew how to capitalize on it. The AutoAnalyzer proved successful in clinical use and the results were presented in public conferences. Its customers received in-depth training on how to use it properly, and Technicon swiftly backed up its patent rights in court. Over the years, industrial uses (such as water quality studies) emerged for the device and its successors.
Technicon “made laboratory testing reliable and timely, and thereby a fundamental part of modern medicine,” says John Whitehead. “Its annual business rapidly grew to tens, and then hundreds of millions.”
When his father died in 1968, Jack Whitehead inherited a large company, and one with essentially no debt.
“Jack was worth a billion dollars on paper,” says Lester Hochberg, tax attorney and friend. “There weren’t many billionaires then.”
But in his final years at Technicon, “he hated it,” says his daughter Susan Whitehead. “He really liked when it was at the front-end of the industry, and it was about discovery and breakthroughs and creating something quite new. Once it became a big business, a volume-driven business, he really did not enjoy it at all.”
“The skills that you need to start a company and grow it are very different from what you need to run a major international company,” comments John Whitehead. That was very frustrating for Whitehead—and those who worked for him. “There was one weekend when all the top executives quit; I was one of them.”
Whitehead had planned to eventually turn over Technicon to his children. Increasingly, however, this looked like a mixed blessing, one his children didn’t want.
Instead, Whitehead, who had often told his children and stepchildren that “you’ve got to give back,” decided to make a different contribution, in his lifetime and on his terms. He would create a research institute, and that would function as a legacy to his children.
“In the early 1970s, my dad began to seriously pursue the idea of a research institute,” says John Whitehead. “He asked Jim Shannon, a former NIH Director, and Irvine Page, head of research at the Cleveland Clinic, along with Leonard Skeggs, to help him. (Skeggs eventually became one of the original members of the Whitehead Institute board.) The idea was to do in an academic setting what Technicon had been doing commercially for decades: applied biology and engineering.”
Over the years, as he met with top experts in medicine and research, that concept gradually shifted from clinical toward basic research.
“He was patient with it,” says son Peter Whitehead. “He listened to people. I can’t think of anything else in his life that he would dedicate 10 frustrating years to doing.”
After meeting with several universities, Whitehead and his associates struck a deal with Duke, announced with much press coverage. Unfortunately, while Duke administrators proved both enthusiastic and generous, the deal fell through, also with much publicity.
Whitehead was unsuccessful in his attempts to recruit a research director, while Duke executives and researchers became uneasy about Whitehead’s terms. (For their trouble, he later awarded a parting gift of $10 million to aid young biomedical researchers.)
“Jack realized that he had done things in the wrong order,” comments Arthur Brill, family friend and longtime Secretary of Whitehead Institute. ”It would have been better to first recruit a director and then, together, pick a host institution.”
Whitehead had planned to have his new research institute hold the stock of Technicon. But over the years, he found that he needed to demonstrate to prospective partners that he could produce cash in hand. In 1980, he ended up selling the company to Revlon, then a major player in medical care. He walked away with Revlon stock that would provide funding for his long-deferred dream.
In the early 1980s, Whitehead and his associates began talking with David Baltimore, then at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who had won the Nobel Prize in 1975 for his discovery of how retroviruses multiply.
“David and Jack could reach understandings quite quickly,” comments Robert Weinberg, Whitehead Institute Founding Member. “Both were very decisive people who thought quickly. They rapidly found a meeting of the minds.”
convinced my dad that if he wanted the best and brightest scientists, he needed
to focus more on basic research and less on applied bioengineering,” says John
Whitehead. “Further, David argued that the best environment for such an
institute would be in a major urban setting with an existing research
them that the field that was then exploding, and around which one could build a
great institution, was developmental biology,” recalls
great skepticism about Jack Whitehead,”
“In particular, he didn’t
understand why MIT was not overjoyed,”
In an era when academics viewed commerce far more suspiciously than they do now, many MIT faculty members were alarmed by the potential deal. The debate flared across the campus in 1981—partly for good reasons, partly not.
“There were entirely legitimate concerns about creating full MIT faculty members who were employees of another organization,” says John Pratt, former Whitehead Institute Associate Director. “But some people thought this was all a scheme of Jack Whitehead to make a bundle off the intelligence of MIT. What was wrong with that argument was that we were setting up a non-profit, where no individual had any equity. He really was being accused of outrageous things.”
“It was a
nasty year,” says
MIT faculty finally voted overwhelmingly in favor of the affiliation,
green light, the Institute roared into being. Twenty months later, 9
“My dad and David Baltimore had a very fruitful, productive and constructive relationship,” says John Whitehead. “With their energy, creativity, varied experiences and willingness to consider different viewpoints for the benefit of the collective enterprise, they built an incredibly successful place.”
Because of tax concerns, Whitehead had no seat on the Institute’s board. But “he was really, really active here,” says Susan Whitehead. “He adored this place. He spent a lot of time here.”
“The Institute had made quite a stir by the time he died,” says Arthur Brill. “It was Camelot-like for many years and, almost from the outset, had an international reputation for excellence. That was extremely gratifying to Jack.”
“Jack died a happy man,” says Robert Weinberg. “From all points of view, the Institute was extremely successful. It became one of the top five biomedical research institutions in less than a decade. No one had the right to expect it, but that’s what happened.”
many people in the biomedical community, and they would pat him on the back,”
Whitehead, who suffered multiple heart attacks and underwent several surgeries, told the story of waking up from heart surgery in the intensive care unit. “He was conscious, and there was a malfunction in one of the medical machines,” says Lester Hochberg. “It was a Sunday and there was no maintenance man or mechanic around. He took a look at the machine and realized it was one of Technicon’s. He asked the nurse to bring a screwdriver, opened it up and fixed it.”
This incident sounds like Whitehead, family and friends agree. One of his favorite sayings was "The only truth is in action."
“He was capable of great detail, but details were not big with him,” comments Peter Whitehead. “He resolutely was a big-picture guy. He was a great enthusiast, a terrific salesman. He was passionate, and ethical considerations were very important to him.”
An only child, Whitehead became a famously social adult. “He liked people broadly,” says Susan Whitehead. “He was very, very curious about what made people tick. He liked anybody’s life story.”
Whitehead loved parties and dancing. He enjoyed asking a serious question at dinner, going around the table to get everyone’s opinion, and probing away at the replies—a process that could be more than a little intimidating.
John, Peter and Susan Whitehead are the children of Constance Stein, Whitehead’s first wife. He married four times, and helped to bring up five stepchildren, who remember him fondly. “He wasn’t very good at showing his emotions, but he was there for you when you needed him,” says stepdaughter Camilla Blair. “He was a great mentor to me,” says stepson Evan Jones, whom Whitehead helped to form Digene, a biotech firm now capitalized at more than a billion dollars. “He would always steer me in the right direction.”
Whitehead’s final years, the extended clan and friends would gather each
holiday season in Vail,
“If you knew Jack at all, you went skiing with him,” says Lester Hochberg. “If you weren’t that good of a skier, you paid dearly. He skied like a madman, without any regard for his age and infirmities.”
“My dad was an enthusiast; and whatever he did, he did to the hilt,” John Whitehead says. “On every ski trip, he invariably ended up going over a cliff at least once, or getting stuck in a tree, or in some other amazing mishap. He played tennis and squash the same way—as if his life depended on each point.”
In 1992, while playing a vigorous game of squash, Whitehead collapsed on the court with a fatal heart attack. “He was playing his regular weekend squash opponent, to whom he had never lost a series,” his son remarks. “Some people say that collapsing on the court was the only way he could save what until then had been a perfect record!”
“He could be a pretty tough guy,” says Susan Whitehead. “He also was a completely embracing kind of person. And when you were in need, he was just phenomenal… He actively enjoyed his life. That’s a really unusual characteristic. I love him for that.”
“He never did anything in a small way,” says Robert Weinberg. “He was a person of grand gestures. He felt that he could do almost anything if he tried hard enough and invested enough money and got the right minds brought to bear. It’s people like him who change the world.”