Mark the Spot: The Company Agnes Varis Built

Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine honors the wide-ranging philanthropy of a pharmaceutical pioneer
Agvar corporate sign at Cummings School
The sign at the entrance to the to the Agnes Varis Auditorium at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Photo: Matthew Healey
October 8, 2015

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Scattered around Tufts’ three campuses are historical markers that often go unnoticed, hidden among the pathways that many of us travel regularly or in the buildings where we study and work. In this occasional series, “Mark the Spot,” Tufts Now explores the stories behind these snippets of university history.

Agnes Varis, H03, made a lot of money and gave a lot of it away. Her generosity paved the way for the Cummings School campus center and auditorium, an endowed professorship in science and society, the cat ward in the Foster Hospital for Small Animals and lecture halls on the Grafton and Medford/Somerville campuses—all named for their benefactor. Varis, who has been called a founder of the generic drug industry, also extended her philanthropy to the arts, politics, women’s issues and other causes. She died in 2011.

In 1970 she founded Agvar Chemicals, which supplied ingredients to manufacturers of generic drugs. Prominently displayed at the company headquarters in New Jersey was a polished wood sign with the firm’s name in gold letters. That sign is now at the entrance to the Agnes Varis Auditorium in the Agnes Varis Campus Center at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

Born in 1930 into a poor family in Lowell, Massachusetts, Varis was the only one of eight children to go to college, earning a bachelor’s in chemistry from Brooklyn College. She took a temporary job at a chemical manufacturing company in New Jersey, and 20 years later was its executive vice president and general manager. When the company was sold, she saw an opportunity.

She was 40 years old then, and with her life savings of $50,000 she founded Agvar. Her success enabled her to contribute to what she loved most: the well-being of animals, opera and Democratic politics. She doted on her cats, Kallee and Zeus, and despite being described by a news reporter as resembling someone’s “quirky great aunt,” she viewed herself as a hard-working businesswoman.

In 2008 she delivered remarks at Tufts that she said summed up not only her insights, but how she hoped to be remembered. She called them the “Agnes Varis Commandments,” and they are now displayed in the campus center that bears her name.

The “Agnes Varis Commandments,” on display in the campus center that bears her name at Cummings School. Photo: Matthew HealeyAmong them:

What you see is what you get.

A woman’s work is never dumb.

You must do the things you think you cannot do.

Behind every successful woman is herself.

When you die, no one will remember you for how much money you made . . . they will remember you for what you did with it.

 

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu