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Making medicines

Pharmaceutical Fermenter Used in the Development of Semisynthetic Penicillins, 1957

Pharmaceutical Fermenter Used in the Development of Semisynthetic Penicillins, 1957

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How do you make a medicine? How do you make sure that you take the right dose? There are many practical problems that have to be solved to provide a successful drug treatment. The availability of treatments has been influenced by many different factors, from developments in exploration, trade and colonialism to new technologies and the training of chemists.

Using herbs in traditional medicine


All cultures have developed their own herbal traditionsHerbalists knew the medical properties of local plants, and where to find them. Such pharmaceutical knowledge was communicated in different ways - local herbalists or plant-collectors passed on their knowledge verbally to their children or apprentices. Doctors trained at universities wrote it down in herbals or in pharmacopoeias, guides to medicines.

Preparing and giving drugs

With the raw ingredients at hand, drug preparation posed a new set of challenges. First, the ingredients had to be made suitable to be consumed. Practitioners devised various methods to administer medicines - herbs could be infused in hot water, like tea, or smoked, like tobacco. One of the earliest tools for drug preparation, the mortar and pestle, was used to grind up solid substances. These could then be made into pastes - often mixed with honey - which were easier to take. Fundamental techniques of drug preparation, such as distillation, were developed from the 700s by Islamic pioneers of alchemy, and today English is still full of words of Arabic origin such as ‘drug’, ‘alcohol’, ‘alkali’, ‘syrup’ and ‘sugar’.

Getting the doses right

But there were other practical problems. How could you make sure that the patient would receive just the right dose of a drug? In natural substances such as herbs, the strength of the active ingredients can vary, so it was hard to tell how much of it you could give to a patient. In most traditions doctors did not resort to standardised formulas, but adapted the drug to individual patients and the severity of their disease - as a patient, you got your very own personalised preparation. In Europe this changed in the 1700s when patent medicines became popular and commercially successful. Ready-made ’brand name‘ mixtures, such as Dr James's Powders or Scotch Pills, could be bought in shops and kept in medicine chests at home.

Chemistry and laboratories, the use of new ingredients


The emergence of synthetic chemistry in the 1800s opened up new avenues for scientific research into drugs because more people were trained in the technical know-how necessary for laboratory work. Many chemists tried to isolate medically active ingredients in plants (for instance the important malaria remedy quinine), and subsequently tried to make those substances in the laboratory in order to become independent of plant supplies.

The new production of medicine in the late 1800s and early 1900s

At the same time, a new industry developed as scientists such as William Perkin developed processes to synthesise new chemicals on a large scale. New production methods developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s made it easier to standardise, package and transport medicines, for instance the Tabloid format developed in the United States and popularised by drug manufacturer Henry Wellcome.

The large medical drug industry of today

Since the 1900s the industrial production of pharmaceuticals has become big business. Companies maintain their own research facilities to develop new substances. To protect patients from harmful side effects, state regulation has established an elaborate system of tests before new drugs are approved, including animal testing and clinical trials. It takes many years for a new medicine to proceed from the laboratory to the pharmacy. Recent estimates indicate that the development of a new drug costs around $1.2 billion (£670 million). These investments are protected by patents that give the developers exclusive rights to sell the drug for a number of years. When this patent expires, other companies are allowed to produce ‘generics’ (preparations which use the same recipe, but which cannot be sold under the same name).

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R Bud, Penicillin: Triumph and Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

R W Clark, The Life of Ernst Chain: Penicillin and Beyond (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985)

J A Di Masi and H G Grabowski, ‘The cost of biopharmaceutical R&D: is biotech different?’, Managerial and Decision Economics, 28/4-5 (2007), pp 469-479

L Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic world (Cambridge, Mass., London: Harvard University Press, 2004)



Cup-shaped vessel in which drugs or herbal mixtures are pounded with a pestle.


An elongated piece of hard material usually made of stone. A pestle is used for grinding pigments, herbs, spices or other materials in a mortar.


A technique to remove or separate components in a liquid mixture. It works because chemicals have different boiling points. Vapours produced by boiling are cooled and then collected when condensed.