This is a guest post, the conclusion of which partly explains how we got to a point today where pharmaceutical companies seem to control, manipulate, and direct the US FDA.


The Ancient Apothecary

Since the earliest human civilizations, plants have been used for medicinal purposes. One of the oldest examples of a pharmacopeia (a list of medicines and how to prepare them) was supposedly written more than 4,000 years ago by an ancient Chinese herbalist. The Egyptians also contributed by forming alchemy schools that prepared concoctions used to treat ailments such as constipation. In addition, early apothecary shops appeared in Greece around the second century A.D. These “drugstores” distributed several important medicinal herbs such as opium, which is still used today by hospitals in the form of morphine.

The Enlightenment Era Apothecary

Organized pharmaceutical groups did not appear in the western world until shortly after Shakespeare’s time, when the London Society of Apothecaries was formed in 1617. These early-modern “pharmacists” were commissioned by the monarchy to develop and sell medicines, and only a member of the group was allowed to open a shop. Over the next hundred years, the Age of Enlightenment swept across Europe, bringing more scientific changes to drug development as physicians began to identify how chemicals in plants such as digitalis worked their magic on the human body.

The Early Modern Pharmaceutical Company

Although these early examples of pharmacological development led to discoveries still used today, the modern pharmaceutical industry owes its roots mainly to the 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period, scientists began to isolate the active ingredients from plants to create drugs such as morphine, and the discovery of germs led to the development of the rabies vaccine by Louis Pasteur in 1885. The first pharmaceutical companies were also formed at this time, and some of the greatest drug discoveries in history were attributed to them. Aspirin, one of the most widely-used drugs today, was first marketed by Bayer in 1899.

Regulation of the Pharmaceutical Industry

These major advances in drug development and administration, as well as desire to profit from growing consumer demand, furnished the growth of many small pharmaceutical companies during the first half of the 20th century. As these companies proliferated, the need to develop a method of regulating the new drugs entering the market became urgent, leading to the formation of government agencies such as the U. S. Food and Drug Administration. The rise of new rules regarding drug testing and manufacturing brought about changes in the way pharmaceutical companies could operate, and many of these small firms began to conglomerate. By 1950, 80% of all drug sales in the U.S. were attributed to only a handful of large corporations, and this trend continues to this day.

The Mega-Pharmaceutical Company

The modern pharmaceutical industry hardly resembles the apothecaries of the past, as it is mainly controlled by a few mega-corporations such as Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline. These companies spend billions of dollars in research and development, providing over 2,500 employment locations in the U. S. alone. In addition to drug manufacturing companies, numerous retail pharmacies have sprung up throughout the country to meet consumer demands, and hundreds of pharmacist and pharmacy technician training colleges have been formed to help fill these positions. Indeed, those ancient herbalists would have been shocked if they had been given the chance to witness all these remarkable changes in pharmacological history.


Brandi Tolleson has a master’s degree in journalism, and writes on various topics, including health, education and history.