Monroe Eliot Wall spent the last 30 years of his life watching from a distance as the substance that he and his colleague Mansukh C. Wani tediously coaxed out of ground-up yew bark in the 1960s grew up into the best-selling cancer drug ever made.
Wall was chief of a young program in natural products research at North Carolina's Research Triangle Park when he was handed his first sample of leaves, twigs and bark of the Pacific yew in 1964. He and Wani, a junior colleague at the time, found and isolated the tree's active ingredient in 1966, and Wall soon named it "Taxol," after the tree's genus name, Taxus, and the compound's chemical kinship to alcohol. The two scientists published Taxol's chemical structure in 1971, and promptly turned all their Taxol paperwork over to their government contractor, the National Cancer Institute.
Wall said that at the time, the NCI wasn't too keen on outside scientists patenting things found on a government contract. Then, too, Wall admitted that his previous experience as head of a natural products research lab run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture had left him soured on the patenting business. In the 1950s, he had synthesized a drug, a member of the flavonoid family, and submitted a patent application to his superiors in Washington. An attorney for the USDA called him and said the agency wasn't interested in filing it, and suggested that Wall file it himself. Which Wall did, only later to be called onto the carpet by a "nasty" USDA bureaucrat who accused Wall of trying to steal the patent.
The incident was sufficiently painful to put a damper on Wall's patenting ambitions for the remainder of his career. After their paper appeared in 1971, by U.S. patenting laws Wall and Wani had a year to file a patent, but they never gave it a serious thought. By 1972, Taxol was thus rendered unpatentable (although 20 years later, medical methods for administering it paid off handsomely for Bristol-Myers Squibb).
Looking back on it, would he try to patent Taxol if he had it to do over again?
"You bet your boots we'd have patented it!" Wall said with a laugh. "We knew we had something hot, we just didn't know how hot!"
But he admitted no regrets, and said he felt "gratified" that his compound turned out so well. Both he and Wani said they have been rewarded many times over by the heartfelt thanks they both have received over the years from people whose lives were saved by the drug.
In 1998, Wall was handed the American Chemical Society's most prestigious prize in medicinal chemistry, and in 2000 he and Wani shared the $250,000 Charles F. Kettering Prize from the General Motors Foundation for their Taxol discovery.
Wall did express one disappointmentthat the clever, catchy name that he had given his yew tree extract was usurped by Bristol-Myers Squibb in 1992 and trademarked. Since the term "taxol" already had been cited in more than 600 research and medical articles before Bristol started marketing the drug, the fact that the company got awarded a trademark for the name aroused considerable furor in the scientific community. By trademark law, the only acceptable term for the generic drug today is "paclitaxel."
"They tried for awhile to prevent people from using the name I gave itthey said we had to use 'paclitaxel,' " said Wall. "I never bothered arguing with them. And we never paid much attention to it, either." -F.S.
Six weeks after Research in Review interviewed him for this article last May, Dr. Wall succumbed to heart and kidney failure a few days shy of his 86th birthday. His obituary in The New York Times cited his roles in the discovery of Taxol and camptothecin, a potent colon cancer drug.-Editor