Bressler helped build Sigma-Aldrich into biochemical powerhouse

A shortage of sugar during World War II led to Engineering alumnus Leo Bressler's 50-year career as a chemical engineer at what became St. Louis-based Sigma-Aldrich Corp., the world's largest supplier of biochemical and organic chemicals to research laboratories.

Leo Bressler

Bressler was among a small group of founders who formed the foundation for making Sigma-Aldrich into a company with $2.7 billion in annual revenue and for making it attractive to German pharmaceutical company Merck, which is acquiring Sigma for $17 billion. At the time the acquisition was announced, Sigma-Aldrich had with 9,000 employees worldwide, including 1,800 in St. Louis.

Bressler earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering in three years from Washington University in St. Louis in 1943. At that time, young men in universities accelerated their studies to complete their degrees before being drafted. Bressler, a St. Louis native, graduated in the top five of his class at Ben Blewett High School on Enright Avenue and earned a scholarship to WashU, where he took math and science courses while earning money delivering telephone books for Bell Telephone, tutoring, and refurbishing motors and generator foundations in the Department of Electrical Engineering. Although Bressler claims not to have done well in chemistry and chemical engineering courses, his typewritten transcript, which he has kept with many other WashU mementos, reflects otherwise: He earned sophomore honors and mostly As and Bs in his classes.

Bressler went to work in a research lab at Phillips Petroleum in Oklahoma for a year after graduating from WashU and before joining the U.S. Navy. After serving in the Navy in a variety of jobs, including transporting soldiers and their equipment across the English Channel, he became executive officer on a ship and later spent nearly a year working with cargo in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, after the war ended.

In 1946, Bressler left active duty and returned to St. Louis, where his good friend, Solomon Kesslinger, who earned a degree in chemical engineering from WashU in 1943, introduced him to Dan Broida, who was leading a small company called Midwest Consultants that was making saccharin, a popular item at the time since sugar was in short supply after the war. Although local company Monsanto Corp. was the largest maker of saccharin, it could not keep up with demand. It took three men, including Kesslinger and Bressler, at Midwest Consultants to manufacture the saccharin at the small storefront on Easton Avenue (now Martin Luther King Drive). Although the company couldn't compete with Monsanto for long, it found a new line of business manufacturing biochemicals and a new name: Sigma Chemical Co.

Bressler took over Sigma's printing ink manufacturing business and produced coating products, corrosion-resistant paints and other products for Carboline Corp., run by Stanley Lopata, who earned a degree in chemistry from WashU in 1935 and later grew Carboline into a $46 million business. In addition, Lopata was a long-time WashU supporter: Engineering's Lopata Hall is named for him and his wife, Lucy, and Stanley's café within the Lopata Gallery is named for him.

After leading those businesses for nearly 20 years, Bressler began developing the company's clinical diagnostic reagent business that supplied the kits to hospitals to test blood.

At that time, a biochemist named Louis Berger worked for Carl and Gerty Cori, Nobel Prize-winning biochemists at Washington University School of Medicine. Berger needed adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which allows metabolism in cells, for his research. After talking with Sigma's CEO Dan Broida, who earned a chemical engineering degree from WashU in 1936, on the tennis courts at Forest Park, Berger brought his ATP manufacturing to Sigma.

His responsibilities grew when Bressler joined a new department that developed enzymes and substrates important in biochemical reactions.

"At the time, I was filled with gratitude at the ability to attend Washington University night school classes in biochemistry," he said.

Bressler became a vice president in 1968, a director in 1974, and retired in 1996. He still has several three-ring binders that contain the bulletins he wrote on various reagents Sigma manufactured.

"I have been lucky to have been associated with Sigma-Aldrich," Bressler said.

When he wasn't working, Bressler relieved stress by playing tennis, a sport he began playing in high school and continued to play until just a few years ago. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of tennis and continues to follow the sport by watching the Tennis Channel. Bressler began playing in local tournaments as a young man, ultimately ranking in the top 20 in the area in the late 1950s.

"It was a real struggle, juggling long working hours and family obligations," he said. "However, with my tennis involvement, I was able to meet and play with several of the top executives of companies, large and small, during trade association national meetings."

Bressler continued to play and oversee tennis tournaments, including the 1966 University City Memorial Open tournament, in which former No. 1 player and East St. Louis native Jimmy Conners got to the final. Bressler played tennis on courts all over Las Vegas, a favorite vacation location for him and his late wife of 58 years, Geraldine (Ger), who died in 2006. Bressler and his wife had three children and seven grandchildren.