Renowned Pfizer scientist Kenneth Koe dies at age 90

Kenneth Koe, one of the two Pfizer scientists credited with the creation of the antidepressant Zoloft and an active participant in town politics in Ledyard, died Wednesday at his daughter’s home in Shrewsbury, Mass.

Koe, 90, lived in the Gales Ferry section of Ledyard for about 50 years until 10 months ago, when he moved into his daughter Kristin Koe’s home after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“He lived a very full life,” she said Friday.

Koe was born in Oregon to Chinese immigrant parents, and was able to put himself through Reed College in Portland, Ore., with scholarships and income from working nights at a Chinese restaurant, his daughter said.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Reed, he advanced to the University of Washington and then Caltech for his master’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry.

Koe began his Pfizer career in 1955 at its Brooklyn, N.Y., laboratories, moving to its research headquarters in Groton in 1960, where he stayed until his retirement in 1995.

Over his career he obtained 14 patents and published 150 scientific articles, many focusing on the neurotransmitter serotonin and its role in depression, Kristin Koe said.

With fellow Pfizer scientist Willard Welch he developed Zoloft, which targets serotonin.

The drug was patented a year after Koe’s retirement, becoming a multimillion-dollar seller for Pfizer.

Kristin Koe said she learned about many of her father’s accomplishments by doing a Google search on his name.

“He was very quiet and very humble. He never liked to talk about his accomplishments,” she said.

In addition to his professional accomplishments, Koe also served on the Town Council, the Democratic Town Committee and Ledyard’s planning and zoning commissions, among other groups, said Naomi Rodriguez, chairwoman of the Democratic Town Committee.

“He was involved in so many things,” Rodriguez said.

Kristin Koe said her father was also a justice of the peace who performed marriage ceremonies and loved to sing.

“He sang with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus, and he sang for 50 years in the United Methodist church choir,” she said. “He also sang in the Mystic Chorale.”

He and his wife, Jo Ann, had another daughter, Karen Koe, in addition to Kristin, and five grandchildren.

“They all called him ‘Poppy,’” Kristin Koe said.

Jo Ann Koe, who died of breast cancer in 1995, was very active with her husband in the United Methodist Church of Gales Ferry.

Ginny Beall, a longtime church member, said he was a "very active and faithful member" of the church, serving on several committees and leadership positions.

She was also a neighbor and friend, describing him as "quiet and attentive.

"If he didn't have something to say, he wouldn't say it. If he did have something to say, he was worth listening to," she said.

Kristin Koe said a memorial service for her father will take place at 1 p.m. Oct. 17 at the church.

Afterward, her father’s ashes will be buried next to his wife’s in the memorial garden at the church.

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy

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