There are some moments in life that are so destructive and so calamitous that they end up defining who you become.
At the end of the 19th century, Fritz Hoffmann was a young Swiss merchant from a wealthy family in the silk-ribbon manufacturing business. He was known for his larger-than-life personality, and even larger ambitions to make his mark on the world.
In 1892, Fritz accepted a job in Hamburg, Germany – the world’s fourth largest port city at the time – when a devastating wave of cholera broke out. Systemic greed had left the city without proper water filtration and the disease spread ferociously through the population of nearly 800,000 people.
The city was locked down, and Fritz was far from his family and the comforts of home. He watched nervously as the ruling Prussian government called in future Nobel Prize-winner Robert Koch, often referred to as the “father of bacteriology,” to guide the management and containment of the disease. As Hamburg scrambled to treat the ill, Fritz also witnessed the makeshift hospital tents of one of the world’s first Red Cross operations. Despite these contributions to the quarantined city, almost 9,000 citizens died within a relatively short time.
For Fritz, it was a catastrophic and life-changing experience. He began to wonder if the industrial manufacture of medicines could be a major advance in the fight against diseases. What the world needed, he concluded, would be to turn scientifically researched pharmaceutical compounds into medication, standardised in terms of dosage and effects. If he could distribute them internationally, they’d have the potential to save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives. His vision took a step closer to reality when the 28-year-old founded F. Hoffmann-La Roche & Co in Basel, Switzerland, in 1896.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s because history has a tendency to repeat itself. Even now, 125 years later, in the midst of a global pandemic, Roche remains true to Fritz’s belief that quick innovation and novel approaches to testing and treating can have a widespread impact on people’s lives.