Abstract: The Changing Nature of Corporate Philanthropy in Response to Growth and Conflict: A Case Study of Alcon Laboratories

Lauren Klaffke


The decade after World War II ushered in immense praise and public support for the pharmaceutical industry because of innovations in antibiotics and corticosteroids. In the late 1950s, however, firms faced accusations of price fixing and misleading marketing practices, which were compounded by discontent over the high cost of prescription medications. Further, concern over the tragic prescription of Thalidomide to pregnant women, which led to birth defects in the form of shortened or malformed limbs, shifted public support to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for regulating the industry. This environment prompted pharmaceutical companies to change their approach to public relations. This case study follows the philanthropic work of Alcon Laboratories, Inc., in response to this regulatory environment and criticisms of the pharmaceutical industry. Alcon began as a specialty pharmaceutical manufacturing firm, specifically serving the needs of ophthalmologists through both over-the-counter and prescription treatments. I argue that changes in Alcon's philanthropy represent larger changes within the pharmaceutical industry. These changes reveal the mounting political economy of pharmaceuticals in the second half of the twentieth century.