GSK marks 30 years in Hamilton
Andrew Witty, the CEO of GlaxoSmithKline Global, flew from the company's headquarters in London to give the keynote speech at the Hamilton Site's 30-year anniversary on Tuesday afternoon.

The chief executive officer of GlaxoSmithKline Global, Andrew Witty, grinned as he summed up how far the company's Hamilton site, a gleaming, high-tech complex on the north side of town, has come in the three decades since it was opened.

"This was a chicken coop 30 years ago," he said. "And now look at it. What a great achievement to build not only this building, but to build this community. I hope you all feel proud of the work you have accomplished."

Witty was in Hamilton on Tuesday after flying in from the company's global headquarters in London to give the keynote speech for the plant's 30th anniversary celebration. He addressed a large crowd of employees and their friends and family, along with many members of the community in a large tent set up for the occasion.

GlaxoSmithKline is one of the world's largest pharmaceutical, biologics, vaccine and consumer health care companies, which produces over-the-counter products like Nicorette gum and Sensodyne.

The Hamilton site was founded in 1981 by Drs. Edgar Ribi, John Cantrell, Steven Schwartzman and Reno Parker as Ribi ImmunoChem Research, Inc.

Since then, the Hamilton facility has grown to employ 195 people and is the sole manufacturing site of a product known as MPL (monophosphoryl lipid A). MPL is an additive that improves the effectiveness of vaccines, including the company's human papillomavirus vaccine and a hepatitis B vaccine.

Witty said he travels all over the world to see the effects of the vaccines that are produced by GSK employees.

"I met a baby named Makayla that was the first baby in Africa to be vaccinated as part of a trial to test a malaria vaccine," Witty said. "It's that picture that I hope you have in your mind when you work here at GSK. There are people in places like Kenya and Uganda that depend on your work. I hope you feel proud that we are able to develop vaccines and medicines to help children like Makayla."

Kenneth Von Eschen, the Hamilton manager of GSK clinical development, gave a rousing speech while Bitterroot resident Huey Lewis' song "I Want a New Drug" played in the background. Von Eschen showed pictures of some of the children who have been saved by vaccines around the world.

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"Go home tonight and put your arms around your loved ones," Von Eschen told the crowd. "And say, ‘I'm really excited and blessed because the work I do here really means something to people.'"

Next, Nathalie Garcon, the head of the company's Global Adjuvant and Delivery Systems Centre in Belgium, gave a brief history of vaccines. She described how a Chinese scientist invented the first vaccine in 900 when he came up with a way to blow the scabs of smallpox victims into the nasal passages of non-infected patients.

"There are currently 27 vaccine-preventable diseases," she said. "And vaccines prevent 3 million deaths from disease every year. Four of my family members died from preventable diseases, and I am very fortunate that my children have been born in a time and a place where that is preventable. And that is thanks to the work of people like you."

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Michael Covarrubias, the Hamilton site director, and several other scientists fondly remembered Dr. Ribi, who was the driving force behind the formation of the company 30 years ago.

Kent Myers fondly remembered Ribi's contributions to the development of the company. Ribi was a longtime Hamilton resident who moved here from Switzerland to continue his research on pathogens and vaccines. He had a gregarious personality, spoke with a thick accent and constantly had a tobacco pipe in his mouth.

"He was sort of the classic absent-minded professor," Myers recalled. "But he believed in a dream that you could take this toolkit of molecules on the outside of bacteria and use that to prevent diseases. And that's why we're all here today."

Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.