Kenneth C. Frazier, the son of a North Philadelphia janitor, was named Tuesday to lead Merck & Co. Inc., the nation's second-largest drug manufacturer.

Frazier, 55, of Upper Makefield, will become Merck's chief executive officer and a member of the board on Jan. 1. He will retain his current title of president.

He will succeed Richard T. Clark as chief executive; Clark will remain as chairman of the board. Under Merck's mandatory retirement policy, Clark, 64, was scheduled to step down as chief executive next year.

Frazier comes to his new position with 18 years' experience at Merck, including time heading its public affairs department, its legal operations, and, most recently, its three largest divisions - pharmaceutical and vaccine sales and marketing, research and development, and manufacturing and supply.

Frazier has been president since April.

Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., has major operations in the Philadelphia area, employing about 12,000 people in North Wales and West Point. Other New Jersey facilities are in Rahway, Kenilworth, and Summit.

As Merck's general counsel, Frazier led the company's legal defense of more than 5,000 lawsuits brought by users of Vioxx, a painkiller that was found to raise the risk of heart attacks and strokes. At the moment, potential legal costs from Vioxx are estimated at $7.7 billion, far below the $18 billion that some were predicting when the first cases were brought in 2004.

Frazier's appointment as chief executive is, thus far, the high-water mark of the remarkable career of a man who grew up at 18th and Diamond Streets and was schooled at Northeast High School and Pennsylvania State University before earning a law degree from Harvard University.

His resume includes a stint at the Philadelphia law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath L.L.P., where he became a partner.

As a lawyer at Drinker Biddle, Frazier was part of a team of lawyers who, working without charge, won a new trial for an Alabama man facing the death penalty for the 1978 killing of a Birmingham shopkeeper. The inmate, James Cochran, was acquitted in a retrial in 1997.

Frazier's success is all the more notable given his starting point, North Philadelphia, one of Philadelphia's most impoverished neighborhoods.

"Yes, by the accident of geography, my father's house was at 18th and Diamond Streets," Frazier said in an interview Tuesday. "But the standards of my father's house were universal in that he believed in hard work and the importance of education."

His father, Otis Frazier, was the self-taught son of a South Carolina sharecropper. Now deceased, he required his children to walk about a mile and a half twice a month to a branch library - to return books they had read and bring home new ones.

In a 1991 interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, Kenneth Frazier said his parents had made him and his siblings "study and read rather than watch a lot of TV and they instilled in us an appreciation for books, music and art."

Among his heroes growing up was Thurgood Marshall, Frazier said. He was drawn to the law as a result.

While at Drinker Biddle, Frazier represented Merck, setting him on the path to his current position.

"Your job as a trial attorney is to try to convey to the jury the essence of the people you represent," he said. "And I frankly was in awe of Merck and the quality of its scientists."

He joined Merck in 1992, in its public affairs division. There, he said, "I got to see the importance of the company to its external stakeholders."

As chief executive, he takes over at a time of transition for Merck, which is still integrating its operations with those of Schering-Plough Corp., purchased last year for $41 billion. As part of that transition, Merck plans to shed about 15,000 jobs by 2012.

Asked Tuesday what his father would have thought of his latest achievement, Frazier suggested he would not have found it surprising.

"Today's news is consistent with what he believed was possible for his children in this country," Frazier said. "The way he lived his life, which was to always work hard, be honest, to do the right thing, paid off in my case."

Kenneth C. Frazier

Age: 55

Born: Philadelphia.

Education: Harvard Law; Pennsylvania State University; Northeast High School.

Experience: Merck since 1992; former partner, Drinker Biddle & Reath L.L.P.

Other posts: Boards of Exxon Mobil Corp., Pennsylvania State University, Cornerstone Christian Academy in Philadelphia; member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Council of the American Law Institute, American Bar Association.

SOURCE: Associated PressEndText