Thank you, Agnes Varis

Agnes Varis
Dr. Agnes Varis (1930-2011)

We at the Association for Accessible Medicines are proud of our rich heritage. The pioneers who forged our industry deserve to be heralded. Some are still with us; some are gone. Please keep reading about them and their contributions to society.

In New York City’s Central Park, near the lower end, is a plaque embedded in stone that reads “Builder of Fortunes. Nurturer of Dreams. Grantor of Courage.” Inscribed above those words is the name Agnes Varis, the magnanimous philanthropist, humanitarian, advocate for women’s rights, and defender of the underprivileged to whom the plaque gives honor.

Among her many passions, Agnes loved the arts. She served as managing director for the New York Metropolitan Opera's Board of Directors, was appointed by President Obama to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, funded a program to create employment opportunities for America's elderly jazz and blues musicians, and donated $2 million to provide steeply discounted opera tickets to senior citizens. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Agnes established the “Musicians in the Schools Program” to aid displaced New Orleans performers, a venture that earned her the Jazz Foundation’s "Saint of the Century" award. And in 2011, in recognition of her devotion to the city, a New Orleans street was named Dr. Agnes Varis Way.

An ardent supporter of policies to make medicine affordable for all, Agnes was one of the founders of the Generic Pharmaceutical Association, now the Association for Accessible Medicines. During the 1984 Hatch-Waxman Act negotiations, she fiercely defended the generic industry position that prescription drug legislation must assure a fair balance between access and innovation. To further advance the use of generics, she helped draft the Greater Access to Affordable Pharmaceuticals Act, which became law as part of the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act.

While reflecting on Agnes’ contributions to our industry, I asked some of my colleagues who knew her to share their memories of this amazing woman. Their sentiments were not surprising:

“such a gracious teacher and mentor for young women in business;”
“a passion for the generic industry unlike anyone else;”
“committed to helping others achieve their dreams;”
“a pioneer and leader in every sense of the word;”
“unrivaled generosity and passion;”
“just the coolest woman ever.”

Wrote one, “My fondest memory of Agnes was when she invited me to her home in New York with my son, who was 10 at the time. I was relatively new in the industry and she barely knew me, but she extended such warm hospitality. She not only served us brunch, but had a gift for my son -- a tape recorder so he could record his thoughts on his visit to the City.”

Agnes never stopped caring and giving. While undergoing radiation treatments, she personally established and maintained Cleopatra's Touch, a program whose stated mission is, “To provide women with cancer the opportunity to be beautified by specialists during the course of their therapy.”

On the lower half of that plaque in Central Park plaque is a quote by Pericles that perfectly sums up Agnes’ philosophy of life: "What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone, but what is woven into the lives of others." Agnes died in 2011 at age 81. For everything she left behind, we owe her a profound debt of gratitude.


Bob Billings

By Bob Billings. Active in the pharmaceutical industry for more than 25 years, Bob held various positions at the Generic Pharmaceutical Association (now the Association for Accessible Medicines) from 2007 through June 2015, including Interim President and Executive Director.


Read more from our series on the founders of generic medicines

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