Milton Wolf, 96, Wyeth scientist who laid the groundwork for new drugs

Milton Wolf, 96, of West Chester, a researcher at Wyeth Laboratories who with his team laid the groundwork for drugs to go to clinical trials, died Monday, Feb. 20, of aspiration pneumonia at Freedom Village-Brandywine, where he had lived for the last six weeks.

In 1960, Dr. Wolf joined Wyeth in Radnor and for the next 25 years led a team of two to four scientists in developing  compounds, some of which became drugs for use in humans and animals. He and his team were very productive, with a tally of 68 patents.

"He had a brilliant mind,” said daughter Nancy Wolf Baumann.

Born in New York, Dr. Wolf was reared in the Bronx. A precocious student, he enrolled in City College of New York at 16 and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry. He earned a master of science degree in organic chemistry from New York University.

During World War II, he served in the Army Medical Corps, stationed in Kolkata, India, formerly known as Calcutta.

Afterward, he resumed his studies and received a doctoral degree in organic chemistry from  Ohio State University. While there, he was an Ohio State football fan, rarely leaving home without his red “O” baseball cap.

“Even people who didn’t know his name knew him as the ‘O’ man,” his daughter said.

In 1955 and 1956, Dr. Wolf was employed by the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in Shrewsbury, Mass, doing biology research. From 1956 to 1960, he was a research project leader for General Foods Corp. in New York.

James L. Diebold, who worked for Dr. Wolf for 24 years, said the scientists were assigned to research in the areas of antibacterials, antidepressants, penicillin derivatives, and anti-inflammatories. They created substances in tiny amounts.

“We would work on compounds already on the market and improve on them,” Diebold said. Once the team established an improvement, its creation would go to Wyeth’s patent office, and on to a Wyeth unit for production in big batches. The team then applied to the U.S. Patent Office with proof of the new compound. The ultimate goal was to lay groundwork for clinical trials, he said.

“In a way, it was a crap shoot. You never knew how far it would go,” Diebold said. “If you get the patent, Wyeth could start clinical trials, if the drug looked to be promising. We were developing what we hoped to be active, novel compounds that could be sold, and a way to make them.”

Diebold sat across an aisle from Dr. Wolf, and said he was easy to work for. “He was a real nice guy, very intelligent and instructive. It always makes it better to have someone who makes light of the situation when things go bad,” he said.

Three of the patents issued in the 1980s were for substances to treat inflammation and immune responses in mammals. A patent in the 1970s sought to treat mammary gland infection in cows.

Dr. Wolf was married in 1947 to Gertrude Olshaker. The couple had four children before divorcing in 1969. She died in 2002.

In 1974, he married Herberta Peet, known to friends as “Herbie.” The two were the proprietors of the Wild Goose Gift Shop, a West Goshen card and gift store that they created in 1973 and renamed Herbie’s Hallmark in 1990. They retired from the shop in 1994. She died in 2012.

Dr. Wolf was a member of Temple Sholom in Broomall for 40 years, until he no longer could drive himself to services.

For the last 50 years, he exercised regularly, which “we know contributed to his longevity,” his family said.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by children Laura Wolf Shur, Carol, and David, and three grandchildren.  

Funeral service and interment are private.

Memorial donations may be made to the Milton Wolf STEM Scholarship Fund, c/o TD Bank, 180 E. Lincoln Highway, Exton, Pa. 19341.  The scholarship is intended to send aspiring scientists, especially women, to college.