Celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month by Exploring the Life of Alejandro Zaffaroni

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Diversity in STEM

Celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month by Exploring the Life of Alejandro Zaffaroni

At the National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF), our revolutionary Inductees include visionaries from around the world. In celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we invite you to learn more about NIHF Inductee Alejandro Zaffaroni, a biotechnology innovator whose contributions have helped revolutionize the medical field.


Early Life

Born in Montevideo, Uruguay, Zaffaroni had dreams of becoming a professional soccer player from a young age. Unfortunately, his asthma prevented him from playing the sport at a competitive level. Though he was unable to exert himself physically, he gradually developed a love of reading and became enchanted with the world of science thanks to the novels of Jules Verne. He was also given an early introduction to medicine from a relative who established a local hospital. There, a teenage Zaffaroni was able to observe medical procedures in person.

After graduating from the University of Montevideo, he decided to pursue a degree in biochemistry and was accepted at both Harvard University and the University of Rochester. He selected the latter because the institution gave him access to a small lab and control over his own research.

In part thanks to this newfound autonomy, Zaffaroni’s research into how to synthesize, isolate and measure corticosteroids (a type of drug that reduces inflammation in the body) earned him a doctorate in biochemistry. This groundbreaking research provided the foundation for many innovations he would produce throughout his long career.


Innovation and Business

Following his graduation from the University of Rochester, in 1951 Zaffaroni went to work for Syntex S.A., a privately held Mexican chemical company. After being promoted to the head of their research division, he helped establish an operation in Palo Alto, California, and transformed it into a thriving pharmaceutical company.

In 1968, Zaffaroni left Syntex to start ALZA Corporation to pursue his ideas for controlled drug delivery systems. While most medications at the time were administered through pills or injections, he began creating patches and bandages that dispensed medicine through contact with the skin.

With a gift for both innovation and entrepreneurship, Zaffaroni would go on to start a staggering nine different companies and develop “130 patented processes for drug delivery, high-speed genome scanning, drug discovery, and innovative materials development” for a wide range of industries.


A Lasting Legacy

Zaffaroni earned the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1995 and would also go on to serve on the President’s Circle of the National Academy of Sciences.

He and his wife Lida established the Zaffaroni Foundation to support several different causes, including funding a breast imaging center at Stanford University. In 2006, Stanford established a $10 million financial aid program for Latin American students, largely funded by people who had worked with Zaffaroni and admired his kindness and leadership.


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