Wallace Calvin Abbott

In true Silicon Valley fashion, Abbott was established to fill a need—and in its founder’s home. This start-up, however, made its debut not in this century or even in the last. Abbott —then known as the Abbott Alkaloidal Company—began innovating new health care technologies in 1888, and has been serving that mission ever since. Its continuous growth and its focus on breakthrough technology has made Abbott a major player among the valley’s health care innovators.

The man behind the company was Wallace Calvin Abbott , the son of a Vermont farmer who started his career as a doctor outside Chicago. Unhappy with the then-current ways to fight disease, Dr. Abbott began to manufacture granules of active, or alkaloidal, substances to better treat his patients. By doing so he became one of the early leaders of the modern scientific practice of pharmacy.

Since those pioneering days, Abbott has championed scientific investigation to benefit people everywhere and has devoted itself to discovering new medicines, new technologies, and new ways to manage health. The company’s products now include a broad range of pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, medical devices, and nutritional products. Abbott ’s pharmaceuticals include the HIV treatment Kaletra®; HUMIRA®, a monoclonal antibody therapy for multiple autoimmune diseases; and the cholesterol-fighting drugs TriCor® and Niaspan®. Its nutritional products include the infant formula Similac® and the food supplement for people with diabetes, Glucerna®. Abbott’s key medical products include the ARCHITECT®, PRISM®, and m2000™ diagnostic instrument systems; the FreeStyle® family of glucose monitoring products; and the XIENCE™ V Everolimus Eluting Coronary Stent System, which was designed in the Valley, is currently available in Europe and Asia Pacific, and is an investigational device in the United States and Japan.

Dr. Ernest Volwiler

Abbott has a long history of scientific advances that have improved the health of people around the world. In the 1920s and 1930s, Abbott made important breakthroughs in the collection and storage of blood and blood products and intravenous solutions, making transfusions safer and more reliable for patients. In later years, the company introduced high-volume hematology instruments used in hospital labs and blood banks. Abbott ’s PRISM system, a high-throughput analyzer, is currently used to screen the majority of the world’s blood supply.

Abbott is also a proven leader in sedation and anesthesia. Dr. Ernest Volwiler and later, Dr. Donalee Tabern, conducted pioneering work that led to the introduction of the sedatives Neonal and Nembutal.

Building on their previous work, in 1936, Drs. Volwiler and Tabern developed Pentothal, an intravenous anesthetic that enabled doctors to develop many of the more complex surgical procedures that define modern medicine today. For their efforts, Drs. Volwiler and Tabern were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame 50 years later, in 1986.

Some of Abbott’s most significant scientific contributions are in the area of HIV/AIDS. In 1985, the company developed the first licensed test to detect HIV antibodies in the blood and today remains a leader in HIV diagnostics. Abbott researchers continue to monitor HIV-positive populations for new strains and resistance in order to refine its diagnostics.

Abbott scientists also developed two protease inhibitors for the treatment of HIV, Norvir (one of the first introduced) and Kaletra (the most prescribed). The protease inhibitor class of drugs has revolutionized HIV treatment, helping turn HIV/AIDS into a manageable disease.

Silicon Valley today is home to many biotechnology companies, but Abbott can trace its biotech roots back to the early 1900s, with the production of Abbott’s book Biologic Products and How to Use Them. Since then, Abbott has continued to be at the leading edge of biologics research and development.

Abbott ’s introduction of a new method for penicillin production in the 1940s ultimately allowed the critical antibiotic to be produced on a scale large enough to supply the U.S. war effort. In 1972, the company introduced one of the first antibody-based tests for hepatitis and continued to contribute new, more sensitive tests in the years that followed. In addition to the first HIV test, Abbott has delivered additional retroviral and hepatitis tests, which are used to screen more than half of the world’s donated blood supply.

In the 1990s, Abbott began molecular diagnostics research, introducing a DNA-based system for infectious diseases. Since then, the company has developed gene-based tests for breast and bladder cancer.


In 2002, Abbott received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for its innovative biologic, HUMIRA, the first fully human monoclonal antibody for rheumatoid arthritis (RA). HUMIRA treats several autoimmune diseases including RA, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis (arthritis of the spine), and Crohn’s disease, and is in development for psoriasis and ulcerative colitis use. Abbott also has worked with other biotechnology companies. Abbott was a key early investor in Amgen, the world’s largest biotech company.

In 2007, biotechnology company Genentech recognized the potential of two Abbott -discovered cancer compounds and partnered with Abbott to develop and commercialize them.

As the company grew globally, so did Abbott ’s presence in Silicon Valley. In the 1970s, Abbott established a site in Santa Clara for the diagnostics division. In 1986, Abbott acquired the Mountain View-based company Oximetrix. In Mountain View, Abbott employees manufactured drug-delivery pumps for hospitals, including the first morphine-delivery pump. Th is division moved to Morgan Hill in 1997 and later became part of the Abbott spin-off , Hospira. Abbott Vascular, a leader in vascular care technologies, has locations in both Redwood City and Santa Clara. Abbott Diabetes Care, based in Alameda, is a leader in developing, manufacturing, and marketing advanced glucose-monitoring systems and test strips for better diabetes management. In all, Abbott employs over 2,500 professionals in Silicon Valley.

With more than $22 billion in 2006 sales, Abbott ’s 65,000 employees work to address critical needs across the health care spectrum. Miles White, chairman of the board and CEO, states that the company’s success “is a function and reflection of the people who make it work.” Abbott ’s success is also due to the fact that it is a committed global citizen. “Global citizenship is simply inseparable from our mission of improving lives,” says Mr. White. To that end, Abbott focuses on advancing leading-edge science and technologies, educating patients, increasing access and affordability to its medicines and technologies, advancing health-related public policy dialogue, and working to improve the environment through initiatives that include cutting greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption.

Throughout its history, Abbott has maintained a commitment to the people it serves—patients, medical professionals, and employees—around the world and in Silicon Valley.

This history was written in 2008 by the Silicon Valley Historical Association.

Abbott website.