Carl A. High, 79, of Oreland, a retired public relations director for Merck & Co. and a civic activist, died of cancer Nov. 23 at home.

In 1965, Mr. High went to work for Merck & Co. in West Point, Pa. He later was an executive with the pharmaceutical firm's international division in Rahway, N.J., and traveled the world.

In the 1980s, Merck developed the drug Mectizan as a treatment for onchoceriasis, or river blindness. The disease ravaged the poor in Africa. Mr. High, who was then public affairs director for Merck's international division, helped convince company leaders of the drug's enormous potential benefits to humanity.

In his memoirs, Mr. High said he reminded Merck's executive committee of the company's oft-repeated credo that "medicine is not for the profits; it is for the people."

In 1987, Merck pledged to provide Mectizan free of charge. Eventually, it cooperated with the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and nongovernmental organizations in many countries to distribute the drug to those infected or at risk. Mr. High retired from Merck in 1989.

A native of Gilbertsville, Mr. High graduated from Spring City High School, where he was a running back on the football team. He earned a bachelor's degree from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. There, he met Marilyn Unger, whom he married in 1952.

During the Korean War, Mr. High served in naval intelligence in Washington. After his discharge, he was a reporter at the Pottstown Mercury. In 1956, he joined the marketing department of Campbell Soup Co. in Camden. He then worked in New York City and Louisville, Ky., for Carl Byoir & Associates, a public relations firm.

From 1963 to 1965, Mr. High was public information officer for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. In April 1963, he was aboard the institute research vessel Atlantis II when it participated in the search for the Thresher, a U.S. nuclear submarine missing off Cape Cod.

Mr. High was in an Atlantis submersible when he sighted debris from the submarine. His photo of a Thresher parts manual was printed in Life magazine on June 7, 1963.

Mr. High told his sons, David and Stephen, that when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, he decided that people like him had to do good things even if they were unpopular. He organized bus trips to Washington for demonstrations against the Vietnam War and campaigned for antiwar presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972.

Mr. High was a member of the Norristown Area Coalition for Action, a civil-rights advocacy group, and tutored students in English and math at the Opportunities Industrialization Center in Norristown. In the 1980s, he was active in the nuclear freeze and disarmament movements.

He enjoyed family vacations, including to Montreal, Maine and Montana, and wrote in his memoirs of the pleasures of bike riding in Ireland and Vermont and on Cape Cod.

In addition to his wife and sons, Mr. High is survived by a brother and eight grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Jan. 31 at BuxMont Universalist Fellowship, 2040 Street Rd., Warrington.

Contact staff writer Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.