James Burke, whose leadership of Johnson & Johnson during the Tylenol poisoning tragedy in 1982 was admired for its decisiveness, openness and corporate self-sacrifice, died Sept. 28 in New Jersey. He was 87.
Neither the cause nor the exact location of Burke’s death was revealed by the New Brunswick, N.J.-based pharmaceutical giant. Burke, a Princeton, N.J., resident, worked at the company from 1953 until 1989 and was chairman and chief executive for the last 13 years of his time there.
More than 30 years ago, Burke had a key role in the country’s response to the chilling deaths caused by Tylenol capsules adulterated with the rapidly working poison cyanide.
On Sept. 29, 1982, two people in suburban Chicago died of cyanide poisoning. Investigators quickly determined that both had taken Tylenol. The Food and Drug Administration was notified, and the next day McNeil Consumer Products, owned by Johnson & Johnson, began recalling 93,000 bottles of the pills from an implicated lot.
Over the next two days, four people died in the Chicago area, and several days later a seventh and final victim. On Oct. 5, Tylenol laced with a different poison, strychnine, was found in California.
On Oct. 6, Burke ordered the removal of all 31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules on American store shelves.
More than 8 million capsules were testted for poison, and 75 were found to contain cyanide. All were for sale in the Chicago area. The perpetrator was never found.
The recall cost Johnson & Johnson $100 million immediately. Tylenol’s market share — tablets and other forms of the drug stayed on the market — fell to 7 percent. Burke personally took charge of a committee to produce tamper-proof packaging.
When the company relaunched Tylenol capsules at the end of the year, it distributed 40 million $2.50 coupons in a gesture to recompense consumers for medicine they might have thrown away. By the following September, Tylenol had 30 percent of the market again — nearly its pre-poisoning share.