A Look At Chattem’s History In Light Of Sanofi Layoffs

Saturday, November 17, 2018 - by John Shearer
Chattem/Chattanooga Medicine Co. employees work inside a lab in 1962
Chattem/Chattanooga Medicine Co. employees work inside a lab in 1962
- photo by Courtesy of Chattanooga Public Library

Chattem over the years has produced a number of familiar over-the-counter drugstore products, such as FlexAll and Gold Bond.


But perhaps much less familiar has been the history of the firm and how it ended up being started in Chattanooga.


The history comes to mind as parent company Sanofi announced plans this week to cut 160 jobs in Chattanooga in such areas as sales, marketing, and research and development at Chattem while keeping the manufacturing operation here.

The jobs will be shifted to New Jersey.


A look at a copy of a speech on file at the Chattanooga Public Library and given by then-UTC chemistry professor and Chattem employee Dr. Irvin Grote in 1971 sheds much light into its early history.


Drawing on materials compiled by longtime former employee Elsworth Brown and a past speech by Alex Guerry Sr., Dr. Grote in the talk said the firm – initially called Chattanooga Medicine Co. -- was founded through the leadership of Z.C. Patten.


Mr. Patten, originally from Illinois and nicknamed “Zip,” had been wounded in the Battle of Chickamauga during the Civil War and spent some time in Chattanooga recuperating.


Despite that unpleasant introduction, the city would eventually become quite good for his wellbeing – particularly his vocational life.


Deciding to stay here after the war, he first helped start what became T.H. Payne book and stationary company with fellow Union veteran T.H. Payne. Mr. Patten later bought the Chattanooga Times before Adolph Ochs became involved.


In 1879, he started the Chattanooga Medicine Co. with several incorporators, Dr. Grote said. He apparently focused on the makeup of the leadership with the same sense of attention he did the makeup of the products, as several prominent and successful Chattanooga business people became involved. Among them were wholesale druggist Fred Wiehl, T.G. Montague, Xenophan Wheeler, H. Clay Evans and others.


The firm was first located on Market Street between Fourth and Fifth streets before later relocating out to its longtime headquarters in the St. Elmo area.


Dr. Grote mentioned in his talk that the first product was a vegetable laxative bought from the grandson of inventor Dr. A.Q. Simmons. “The product was sold for $2 for three ounces and was called Simmons Liver Regulator, but the Chattanooga Medicine Company renamed it Black Draught,” he said. “It was an extract of senna and looked black, so they called it Black Draught.”


The second product, he said, was Wine of Cardui, which came from the Carduus Benedictus flowering plant and was used to aid menstrual pains. According to Dr. Grote, the plant was actually from Europe but also grew in the United States and was reportedly used by the Cherokees.


Other early products were not taken orally but simply through the eyes in the form of enjoyable observation. The firm produced both popular calendars that had room for writing entries, and ladies birthday almanacs for reading.


Although Z.C. Patten got the company started through such innovative introductions, he would not stay around as long as some of its products. His nephew, John A. Patten, had started working there as an office boy, and Z.C. Patten eventually sold it to John and John’s brother, Z.C. Patten Jr.


The older Mr. Patten’s son-in-law, J.T. Lupton, was also involved, but he sold out, too, and began focusing more of his attention on his Coca-Cola bottling business and other ventures.


John A. Patten died in 1916 at middle age, and Dr. Grote recalled that he had observed him as a young man and remembered that Mr. Patten had a stuttering problem when he spoke.


Others who went on to head the company were G.H. Patten, another brother of John A. Patten, and Lupton Patten.


Dr. Grote also contributed some to the chemistry end of the business. He said in his talk that in 1935, at the suggestion of one of the Pattens, he crossed Balm Ben-Gay with Vicks. The end product was later renamed Soltice at the suggestion of later company leader Alex Guerry, and it became another popular product for years.


As World War II arrived, the company was involved in making an ammonia product used in the war effort, as well as packaging about 40 percent of all the K-rations used by the Army.


After the war, using a number of scientists from different universities, including the University of Chattanooga, for research, they developed such products as that used in buffering Bufferin, Dr. Grote said.


And Dr. Grote later discovered a product that went into producing Rolaids antacid pills.


Among the mid-century company history, Dr. Grote stated that after Lupton Patten died in 1958, Alex Guerry became president and the company really expanded, buying out several other firms.


In 1966, the company changed its name from Chattanooga Medicine Co. to Chattem Drug & Chemical Company. As Dr. Grote stated at the time as the reason, “I think most of the profits come out of the chemicals.”


Eventually the shortened name Chattem was used.


Today, the company’s website lists such products as Allegra, FlexAll, Icy Hot, Gold Bond and Pamprin, which cover such healthcare product areas as pain relief, skin and hair care, and health and wellness.  


The company reached even greater visibility in about the 1990s, when former NFL quarterback Joe Namath became a pitchman for FlexAll.


For a number of years, Zan Guerry, the son of Alex Guerry, served as CEO.  In 2014, he was named chairman.


In other recent history, Chattem was purchased by the French multinational pharmaceutical company, Sanofi, in 2010. Robert Long was later named by Sanofi to head the firm’s North America consumer health care division.


And besides the historic St. Elmo facilities, the firm has in recent years also used the former Double Cola plant on South Broad Street – where another kind of tonic with Chattanooga roots was also made.


Through the change of technology and pharmaceutical knowledge spanning nearly 140 years, Chattem has continued to try and help people’s physical health.


And despite the current downsizing locally due to the operating climate of corporately owned firms, it has mostly helped the city of Chattanooga’s economic wellbeing as well over the years.



The outside of the Chattem facility in 1966
The outside of the Chattem facility in 1966
- photo by Courtesy of Chattanooga Public Library

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