Abstract: Becoming Evil: The Seveso Chemical Incident and Hoffmann-La Roche, 1976-1996

Thilo Jungkind


At 12.40 p.m. on July 10, 1976, there was a disturbance at the Icmesa chemical plant located in the Seveso area, a little town near Milan, Italy. Dioxin was emitted into the environment. Seveso was not the first environmental disaster in central Europe, but it was the first one gaining huge public attention. In the eyes of the environmental movement of the mid-1970s, it furnished evidence that the chemical industry as a whole was extremely dangerous. From now on, this critical sentiment determined public attitudes. Therefore, the Seveso incident marks a turning point in European industrial history. This is especially true for Hoffmann-La Roche, the parent company of Icmesa, which was afflicted by a whole slew of crises until the mid-1990s. Before Seveso, the pubic perceived Roche as a shy and untouchable corporation. Now, Roche became the most evil company of the chemical-pharmaceutical industry. The company had to learn to communicate and—more important—to deal with business crisis. Using neo-institutional organization theory, the paper analyzes how the change in public perception and therefore the changing social expectations influenced Roche. In a second step, it will ask why this event became such a disaster for Roche and the entire industry as well, although the company undertook all (financial) efforts to parry negative effects for health and the environment. Research is based on a first exclusive access to the so-called Seveso inventory of the Roche Historical Collection and Archives. The documents, which are currently registered by the author and the archive, allow for new insights into one of the most complex events of contemporary business history.