Burke helped make drug abuse a high-profile national concern when the issue was just starting to gain traction after first lady Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign. At the campaign's peak, about $1 million a day worth of free ads against drug abuse were running.
In a rare honor for a CEO, Burke was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian award, in 2000 by President Bill Clinton, for his corporate and civic leadership.
He started at J&J in 1953 as a product director and became president in 1973. He served as chief executive and chairman from 1976 through 1989.
The most memorable part of his tenure, though, came when someone laced capsules of pain reliever Tylenol with cyanide in 1982. Seven people in Chicago and its suburbs died over three days beginning Sept. 29, 1982. The perpetrator was never identified.
Steve Dnistrian, now vice president for communications at Johnson & Johnson, recalled "pandemonium," with police in Chicago riding around with bullhorns warning people not to take Tylenol.
"Burke in a pretty dramatic press conference said the company had decided to seize all Tylenol capsules," Dnistrian said. "He pulled 32 million bottles of Tylenol off the shelves [nationwide], resulting in a cost to the company in excess of $100 million."
"There was just no other way to guarantee public safety," he recalled Burke as saying.
The incident led to the introduction of packaging with plastic or foil seals to prevent people from tampering with medical products and even food, as well as the replacement of Tylenol capsules, which could easily be pulled apart and altered, with the caplets common today.
Stephen Burke, CEO of Comcast Corp.'s NBC Universal unit, is a nephew of James Burke's.