UR Distinguished Alumnus Alejandro Zaffaroni Dies in California

Mar. 3, 2014
Alejandro Zaffaroni, Ph.D., as pictured on the cover of Rochester Medicine in 2004.

Alejandro Zaffaroni, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Rochester in 1949 and went on to become a world renowned biotechnology entrepreneur and innovator of drug delivery systems, died peacefully at home in Atherton, Calif., on March 1. He was 91.

Dr. Zaffaroni was a visionary known for turning what some believed were impossible ideas into products that impact millions of people. He had a hand in pioneering the development of the birth control pill, therapeutic corticosteroids, transdermal patches for nicotine and nitroglycerin, and controlled-release systems for various drugs.

Born in Uruguay’s capital city of Montevideo in 1923, Dr. Zaffarino suffered from asthma as a boy and couldn’t join his friends in futbol games – a favorite activity in his hometown as a result of Uruguay’s two Olympic gold medals in soccer and a first-ever win at the World Cup tournament in 1930. So he became an avid reader, particularly of Jules Verne science fiction. He also received an early introduction to medicine from a relative who founded a hospital in Montevideo and allowed him, as a teenager, to watch medical procedures.

His ties to Rochester date to the 1940s. With no biochemistry programs in Uruguay, he was accepted at Harvard University and the University of Rochester -- but chose Rochester because of a promise of a small lab and control over his own research, according to an interview with Dr. Zaffaroni in 2004 for the fall/winter edition of Rochester Medicine, the alumni magazine for the School of Medicine and Dentistry.

He and his wife, Lida, settled here and had their first child, Alejandro. A daughter, Elisa, was born a couple years later.

After earning his Ph.D., he stayed in Rochester to complete an NIH Fellowship from 1949 to 1951. His research at Rochester led to the “Zaffaroni Technique” for isolating steroids, which gained international attention.

His next move was to join a privately held Mexican chemical company, Syntex, S.A., where he applied his analyses to the company’s steroid work. Eventually he played a key role in bringing Syntex to the United States and transforming the firm into a global pharmaceutical corporation. Zaffaroni served as president of Syntex Laboratories and director of research.

In 1968 he founded ALZA Corp., to focus on his ideas for revolutionizing the way drugs are delivered in the body. ALZA was the first of nine companies that Dr. Zaffaroni built around novel technologies and 130 patented processes. In 1980 he co-founded DNAX with Arthur Kornberg, M.D., a 1941 UR Medical School alumnus who won the Nobel Prize in 1959 for his DNA research. DNAX was later acquired by Schering-Plough.

Dr. Zaffaroni earned numerous awards and honors – most notably the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, bestowed by President Bill Clinton in 1995. He was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., and served on the President’s Circle of the National Academy of Sciences. In Rochester, he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2004.

Alejandro and Lida Zaffaroni have given generously to many humanitarian causes, medical research, higher education, and scholarships through The Zaffaroni Foundation.

In addition to his wife and children, he is survived by two grandchildren, Alejandro Peter and Charles A. Zaffaroni. The family held private services. A memorial service may be conducted in the future. The family requests that donations in memory of Dr. Zaffaroni  go to the Alejandro and Lida Zaffaroni Scholarship and Fellowship Program at Stanford University, the UC Berkeley Foundation, or the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula.