As a volunteer attorney, Kenneth Frazier won the 1997 release of James “Bo” Cochran, who spent 19 years on death row for a murder he didn’t commit. In 2011, Frazier became CEO of the second-biggest U.S. drugmaker, Merck & Co, and he could be taking home $11.25 million for his 2011 work.

Ken Frazier is making history … by proving that good guys don’t always finish last. In less than 20 years at Merck, Frazier has made his way from general counsel to CEO of the Fortune 100 pharma company. Frazier, 56, earned his big-league success leading Merck’s legal defense against thousands of claims that a painkiller, Vioxx, was causing strokes and heart attacks.

He’s also made a point of volunteering to fight far less profitable battles during his career. In 1991, when he was a partner at a Philadelphia law firm, Frazier and two colleagues took on the case of James “Bo” Cochran, an Alabama man who had been wrongly accused of murder; Frazier’s team worked pro bono to win Cochran a new trial and, in 1997, the innocent man was acquitted. Not bad for a man who sold tadpoles and newts at a local aquarium to make money during his undergraduate years at Penn State.

What’s next for Ken?

Frazier will be at the helm as Merck moves experimental drugs through the final stages of testing. As a result of a decade of research on cardiovascular disease, Merck’s close to releasing four pills that are each expected to bring in $1 billion in annual sales by 2016.

In his own words …

“The pillar of our strategy will remain innovation,” Frazier told Bloomberg in November. “Emerging markets is a subset of that innovation strategy.”

A little-known fact …

Frazier, a Harvard-trained lawyer, is the first African-American to lead a major U.S. pharmaceutical company.

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