February 8, 2007


And the woman behind the brand is...
Olga Monsanto

John Francis Queeny was tall and lean with a sandy moustache. The oldest of six children in an Irish family, Queeny was 41 years old in 1900. He was hard-working but otherwise undistinguished. His career began as a $3-a-week messenger boy in 1871 in a Chicago drug firm. He worked steadily in the drug trade in New Orleans, New York and now St. Louis. It was a career that hardly foretold the years ahead.

While in New York in 1897 Queeny had married Olga Monsanto, the vivacious daughter of a Spanish father and a German mother. In 1901 with no thought of making a new career for himself Queeny founded Monsanto, named for his wife, to make extra money for his growing family.

Two years earlier his first spare-time venture, a factory to grind flowers of sulphur, burned to the ground on its first day of operation taking his $6000 life savings with it. Queeny returned home to a party that night given by his wife and said nothing to spoil the event.

Now he was taking another shot with $1500 and saccharin, a substance 500 times sweeter than sugar. It had been discovered, derived from coal tar, back in 1879 at Johns Hopkins but wasn't being exploited in America. Queeny's firm, Meyer Brothers of Germany was selling it, but no one was making it in this country, although it was easily produced. Queeny saw opportunities for saccharin in soft drinks and candy.

Queeny didn't think it would look right for a Meyer Brothers agent to set up business in his own name so he named his new company for his wife. He was an expert at selling drugs but had no idea how to make them and he risked his fortunes on an unknown foreigner. Dr. Louis Veillon from Switzerland paid off the gamble. He was 26 years old and tireless. A chemical plant was built in 45 days.

Queeny had hoped the giant German chemical trust would ignore so small a competitor, churning out only a single drug. He was wrong. They dropped the price of saccharin from $4.50 a pound to less than a dollar. Queeny sold his horse and buggy and mortgaged his life insurance to stay in business. By working constantly in 1903 he cut losses from $1502.04 to $70.63. Instead of a part-time job Queeny now had two full-time jobs.

Now the government attacked the purity of saccharin and losses climbed to $2058.05 in 1904. Under siege by the German chemical industry and the United States government, Queeny scored his greatest achievement. He persuaded friends and associates to invest $15,000 more in his business. He made his first profit in 1905.

Queeny quit his sales job with Meyer in 1907 and added an artificial vanilla to his line. The lean years ended in 1914 with the shut-down of German commerce in World War I. Queeny and Veillon had been forced to work constantly to keep the business going for over a decade. Now they had to work even harder to keep up with orders. Veillon was forced to retire in 1926 from nervous exhaustion saying, "I did not have a day off from 1914 to 1919. I think it was those years that broke me." Earnings soared over $1,000,000.

Queeny bought the illusion of prosperity forever and overborrowed and overexpanded. After the war the influx of German goods again brought Monsanto to the brink of financial disaster. Queeny sold stock, lost majority control and sent the company public in 1927 to relieve debts.

By this time incurable cancer was forming in Queeny's mouth. He lived until 1933, having saved his company when it was small and when it was big and turning over a growing chemical conglomerate for his sons.


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