Nutley nostalgia on Roche campus closing

The most-viewed article at C&EN online over the last seven days was news from Lisa M. Jarvis on the announced closing of the venerable Nutley, NJ, campus of Hoffmann-La Roche - better known today as simply Roche. A mere 13 miles from Manhattan's Times Square, the US headquarters of Swiss company moved to Nutley in 1929. A total of 1,000 jobs will be lost when the campus closes late in 2013 - Susan Todd at The Star-Ledger has a pair of articles with the details (1, 2). Todd also used the term, "venerable." The Nutley campus is legendary for the discovery and development of major drugs - isoniazid for tuberculosis, for example - and the manufacture of vitamins. At one time, it was the example of how a pharmaceutical company could run an independent research institute with its Roche Institute of Molecular Biology. But this week, we lament the sadly unsurprising loss of employment for many of our friends in chemistry and pharmacology, as well as a host of good folks in administration and support services. Despite its contraction from a high of 10,000 employees in its heyday, Roche continued to provide 9-10% of the tax base for the city.

Roche, Building 76, Nutley, NJ following 2010 renovation. Credit: green@worktoday

My nostalgia for Roche extends back to my childhood, growing up on a hill five miles across the Passaic River in the predominantly Polish town of Wallington. From a clearing in the woods on the hill, the major landmark across into Essex County was the Roche tower, built the year before I was born and known by the unglamorous name of Building 76. The route my family took while driving back from the official state pastime of mall shopping invariably took us past the Roche campus on the Route 3 side. This drive past Roche from the west was preceded immediately by a glorious view of the New York City skyline, almost straight on with the Empire State Building. Whenever I see these two landmarks, I know that I'm almost home. My Uncle Tommy was a facilities maintenance worker at Roche for about 30 years. Readers here are certainly concerned about the loss of scientist jobs - but Roche provided upward mobility for high school and GED graduates like my uncle. He used to buy us our vitamins from the employee purchase plan. My daughter - and much of the internet - absolutely hate the smell of multivitamins. When I stick my nose deep into a bottle, I smell nurturing, love and care. Roche brought the first synthetic vitamin C to market using the combined microbial and organic synthesis method of Nobel laureate Tadeus Reichstein. When I was a kid, some in my family said that they hoped I'd be like Uncle Tommy and work at Roche, but as a scientist. In 1990, I did indeed interview for a postdoc at Roche (with Art Levin and Joe Grippo), giving my interview seminar up in my childhood icon of Building 76. I chose to go elsewhere but I credit the presence of Roche with inspiring me to a career in pharmaceutical sciences. Around 2010, Building 76 was renovated with almost 1,600 reglazed windows and granted LEED Gold status. But the same period also saw Roche's full acquisition of Genentech, its partner since 1978, and the move of the US headquarters to South San Francisco. With a 127-acre campus but 1/10th its peak workforce, the demise of Nutley was only a matter of time. Others who've worked in industrial drug discovery can comment far more than I on the advances made at the Nutley campus. The young kids today might know of the nutlin (Nutley inhibitor) MDM2 antagonists used in p53 cancer research. My generation might be familiar with the development of interferon. But the most historically significant of the Roche discoveries was the benzodiazepine class of anti-anxiety and anti-epileptic drugs led by the storied chemist Leo Sternbach. First with chlordiazepoxide (Librium) and then diazepam (Valium), these drugs replaced less specific and more toxic sedatives such as the barbiturates and meprobamate (Miltown). In fact, I could devote a whole post just to the story of Sternbach and these discoveries (perhaps I will in the near future). For now, we wish to extend our warmest thoughts to Roche employees and their families in the wake of this recent news.  Nostalgia is quaint but the loss of livelihood is devastating. Our best to you.   Read more reaction to the Roche closing in the comment thread at Derek Lowe's In the Pipeline. A superb history of Roche published in 2008 is available here in PDF format.  

Author: David Kroll

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  1. David, thanks for this tribute to Roche and for sharing more of your childhood memories. Lots of gems in that Roche history PDF!

  2. I also credit Roche with much of my career in science. I grew up in Nutley and Roche had a Saturday program for high school students interested in science (this was in the late 60’s). One of the experiments they showed was chromatography of inks. I was facinated and it must have made an impression as I went on to get my PhD in Analytical Chemistry – specializing in Liquid Chromatography. It is hard to believe this facility will soon be closed.

  3. The Roche-Nutley site was a great place to work and I spent over half my life there. They afforded me and my family a comfortable life style and I was always proud to say I was a Roche employee…a member of the Roche family. I saw the site change from what it was in the early 80’s to the mere shell it has become. It is saddening to me and many others who helped to build and maintain that site…just like “Uncle Tommy”. I had the privilege to know many Uncle Tommys during my tenure and like to think I took a little something from each of them with me when they “retired” me in January, 2012.

    • Hi Jerry,

      Thank you so very much for the thoughtful comment on my own recollections. I’ll be sure to pass it along to Uncle Tommy. My apologies to you in your own “retirement” – I’m sure that you have a great deal to offer others. At the very least, I hope that you’ve been able to retire with a good enough cushion to lead the modest life Uncle Tommy does today, away from Jersey.

      All the best,

  4. Thank you David, for writing this great post. Indeed, it is hard to believe that Roche will be closed. PDF is very informative.