By Kenneth So
University of Washington
Kenneth Koe, co-inventor of the antidepressant Zoloft, died on Oct. 7 in Shrewsbury, Mass. He was 90. The son of Chinese immigrants, Koe was born in Astoria, Ore. and grew up in Portland, where his family ran a laundry and lived in the back of the store.
He had a full scholarship to Reed College and paid his expenses with money he earned waiting tables and washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant. It was an inauspicious start for a man who made life better for millions of people suffering from depression. After earning a bachelor’s degree, he came to the UW for graduate school, earning a Master of Science degree in chemistry in 1948. He went on to earn his doctorate in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. In 1955, he moved to Connecticut to work for Pfizer Inc. He spent four decades there developing and testing pharmaceutical compounds, first focusing on antibiotics and then moving over to psychotherapeutics. In the 1970s, Koe started focusing on what would become Zoloft. He and colleague William Welch developed the compound that became Zoloft—one of the most effective antidepressants ever discovered. It helped people who have struggled with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic and social anxiety, and children with OCD. More than 115 million people had been treated with Zoloft by 2005, when Pfizer’s patent expired.
Koe retired in Ledyard, Conn., where he enjoyed singing in his church choir. (end)