healthcare / History / Life sciences

Exton’s West Pharmaceutical Services just turned 100

Herman O. West founded the drug packaging manufacturer in Fishtown in 1923. From packaging penicillin during World War II to going public in 1970, here's why the Philly region remains home.

At left, Herman O. West in 1923 outside the first West Pharma location in Fishtown. At right, West Pharma leaders ring the ball at NYSE. West went public in 1970. (Courtesy West Pharma/Julie Zeglen/made with Canva)

Philly has been getting a lot of attention lately for its life sciences success, with this past October’s EDA Tech Hubs designation for precision medicine and a swell of collaborative support from regional stakeholders. But its history goes back further than you might expect.

The staying power of the life sciences industry in the Philadelphia region can be exemplified by West Pharmaceutical Services, which just celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2023.

West Pharma is a manufacturer for drug packaging and other healthcare products. Founder Herman O. West launched the company in Fishtown in 1923 when he began manufacturing rubber plungers for dental cartridges. The company is now based in Chester County’s Exton, about an hour west of the city, on the appropriately named Herman O. West Drive.

“Penicillin was coming on the scene, insulin was coming on the scene, and so [West] really had the foresight and the entrepreneurship to be able to help develop what those medicines were contained in,” SVP and Chief Commercial Officer Cindy Reiss-Clark told this fall. “To keep the integrity and the safety of the product, he was able to make rubber elastomer components and then also the metal seals that caps them and keeps them contained.”

A long local history

The company is best known for manufacturing packaging for injectable drugs, such as vaccines or insulin. West Pharma’s history includes milestones such as partnering with Eli Lilly in 1942 to package penicillin during World War II, going public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1970 and supporting the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in 2020. In 2022, it reportedly generated nearly $3 billion in net sales.

To celebrate the 100-year milestone, West Pharma has spent time interacting with the “West family” and celebrating “WestFest,” Reiss-Clark said. This includes a green campaign with the Philadelphia Eagles: Every time the team scores a field goal this season, West Pharma will plant 20 trees.

The company’s founder also started the Herman O. West Foundation in 1971, which donates to causes such as Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research. As part of the 100-year celebration, West Pharma donated over $200,000 to the foundation, Reiss-Clark said.

West Pharma continues to make investments in the Philadelphia region. The company opened a new R&D lab in Radnor in March. It’s also involved with local universities and industry organizations in southeast Pennsylvania, such as Life Sciences PA.

“We are thrilled to see West Pharmaceuticals celebrate 100 years,” said Kara Evans, director of communications for Life Sciences PA, via email. “Their staying power within the Pennsylvania life sciences community is a reflection of the value they deliver and their ability to adapt to the ever-changing ecosystem that Life Sciences PA supports. West has partnered with us on various programming and educational efforts that help enhance the scientific and business prowess of the life sciences community in PA. We hope to see their success continue for another 100 years and beyond.”

Two men standing next to a framed Eagles jersey held by Swoop, the Eagles mascot.

West Pharma’s 100 years celebration at Lincoln Financial Field on April 21, 2023 in Philadelphia. (Courtesy West Pharma/Philadelphia Eagles/Drew Hallowell)

The next 100 years

The benefit of being located in the Philadelphia region for West Pharma is the proximity to other big cities, access to universities and research institutions, and the history the company has here to build from, according to Reiss-Clark. The SVP attributes the company’s longevity to the importance of the drug packaging industry, but also the company’s balance of innovation and customer needs with good business practices.

Going forward, she said, West Pharma must continue to support customers in creative ways so that the company and its products stay relevant in the industry. Over the next 100 years, she sees the company focusing on improving access to healthcare.

“We want to shift our business from components to integrated product systems, and ultimately to different device and therapy experiences,” Reiss-Clark said. “And that’s really with the hope of helping the overall healthcare industry, tackle some of those big challenges like affordability and accessibility.”

Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2024 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: Philadelphia Eagles

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