The History of Pharmacology

What are the Advancements and History of Pharmacology?

Pharmacology is the scientific study of how chemicals interact with the human body and produce certain effects. Although the basic concepts underpinning the study of pharmacology have been around for centuries, it wasn’t until the last hundred years or so that pharmacology became a serious and respected scientific branch.

In 2017, doctors in the U.S. wrote more than 3.7 billion prescriptions for drugs of various classes. About half of all people in the U.S. will take at least one prescription drug each month, with 11% of people in the U.S. taking five or more prescriptions per month. The most commonly prescribed medications in the U.S. are:

  • Analgesics
  • Antihyperlipidemic agents
  • Antidepressants

Whether a person takes a prescription drug or an over-the-counter tablet, a pill for pain or medication for mental health, all are part of the study and science of pharmacology. And, it has taken the human race hundreds of years to reach the point where there is a medication for almost any ailment, big or small.

What is the history of pharmacology?

Ancient Times

The roots of modern-day pharmacology can be traced back to ancient times and places all over the world. The earliest pharmacological documents ever found were from an Ayurvedic treatise dating back to the sixth century B.C. Pharmacological records from Ancient Egypt dating to the sixteenth century B.C. have also been found. At that time, Ancient Egyptian medicines included turpentine, lead, salt, beer, and crushed gemstones. Animal byproducts were also popular in ancient pharmacology, such as hooves, lizard blood, pig’s teeth, and animal excrement. Ancient Asian cultures also studied medicine and pharmacology, with evidence dating back to the Han Dynasty in the first century B.C. Some of the drugs used in modern-day medicine can be traced back to these practices. The De Materia Medica, an ancient Greek text from the first century B.C., is considered one of the oldest pharmacology text that has influenced modern-day Western medicine.

 Middle Ages

In the middle ages, traditional pharmacology remedies in Europe made use of a variety of herbs and minerals. Many were either completely ineffectual, or toxic. As time went on, people started to take a more scientific approach to source medicines and remedies from natural products. Doctors and scientists began to emphasize and study a natural compound’s origins and how to prepare the product for therapeutic applications, and what the biological effects of the medication would be. It wasn’t until the early 19th century, for example, that people were able to isolate morphine from the opium poppy, creating one of the most effective pain killers to date. Before, people would have to smoke the opium poppy to get any analgesic effect. Even today, the effectiveness of any new analgesic medications are held to the morphine standard.

19th Century

It was during the early part of the 1800s that a shift in understanding and approach to medicine and pharmacology took place. At this time, physiologist began to study pharmacology and approach it from a scientific standpoint. It wasn’t until the latter part of the nineteenth century that pharmacology became a recognized branch of science. The first pharmacology chair established in the U.S. was at the University of Michigan in 1890 by John Jacob Abel. One of Abel’s greatest accomplishments in the field of pharmacology was isolating pure crystalline insulin in the 1920s. Before that, diabetes was considered a death sentence. Today, every medical college in the U.S. has a department dedicated to pharmacology.

Modern Times

During the 1900s and 2000s, advancements in pharmacology have significantly improved people’s quality of life and their longevity. Before pharmacology became a more advanced science, millions of people died from diseases and infections that have either been eradicated today or are considered simple to treat with antibiotics or other medications. For example, in 1918, the flu killed up to 100 million people worldwide. Polio, which disabled millions of children in the U.S., has been eradicated. Before the middle of the last century, there were no medications available to treat chronic mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder. Millions of people spent their lives effectively disabled from these conditions and had to live in sanitariums.

Who are the big pharma players?

Drug research and manufacturing are multi-billion dollar industries in today’s world. In 2018, the global pharmaceutical industry was worth more than 1.11 trillion dollars. In 2020, researchers estimate that the industry will be worth more than 1.43 trillion dollars. As global demand for medications and new drug development grows, the industry will continue to expand and create new, innovative medicines for a variety of health issues, both mental and physical.

The pharmaceutical industry is research-heavy, and almost 150 billion dollars is spent each year on research for drug development and testing. Despite the massive amounts of research and testing conducted each year, only a handful of new drugs pass regulations and are approved for sale and distribution.

The top ten big pharma players worldwide

  • Bristol-Myers Squibb
  • GlaxoSmithKline
  • Amgen
  • AbbVie
  • Novartis
  • Merck
  • Sanofi
  • Johnson and Johnson
  • Roche
  • Pfizer

All of these big pharma companies are U.S. companies. However, big pharma players are starting to emerge from China, Eastern Europe, South American, and Southeast Asia.


The oldest-known painkiller is the opium poppy, which originated in the middle east. During the middle ages, the opium poppy became a commodity on the silk road, and its cultivation spread to China, Africa, and Europe. For centuries, opium flowers were smoked for an analgesic effect. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the analgesic compounds in opium, through the science of pharmacology, were isolated. The final product was called “morphine,” one of the most potent painkillers known to man.

With the invention of hypodermic needles, morphine was able to be administered quickly with hypodermic kits during the Civil War. Unfortunately, the disease of addiction and the science behind it was not understood. But injured soldiers would return home addicted to morphine. Scientists at Bayer corporation tried to find a replacement painkiller that would not be as addictive as morphine. They created heroin. Much to the company’s embarrassment, heroin turned out to be even more addictive than morphine. Eventually, it was banned in the early 1900s, but it is still manufactured and sold on the black market today.

Vicodin, Oxycontin, oxycodone, fentanyl, and Percocet were invented, approved, and sold during the 1980s through the 2000s. Because powerful and effective painkillers are so addictive, pharmaceutical companies have been attempting to create an equally effective painkiller without the risk of addiction. So far, they have been unsuccessful.


Stimulants have been around for hundreds of years and were first isolated from plants such as the coca plant, the coffee bean, and tobacco. Prescription amphetamines are stimulant drugs that are created in a lab. They are often prescribed for treating ADHD in children and adults. In the mid 20th century, stimulants were prescribed for weight loss or drowsiness. Unfortunately, prescription stimulants come with a high risk of abuse.

Anxiety and Depression Medications

Anxiety and depression are some of the most common mental health conditions in the world. In the mid-1900s, pharmaceutical companies began to study the effects of neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals, on mental health disorder symptoms. New classes of drugs were created that had a direct impact on these neurotransmitters. Today, anxiety and depression are commonly treated with SSRIs or SNRIs and therapy.

Why are some medications habit-forming?

Unfortunately, some medications can be addictive and habit forming. This is especially true with analgesic drugs and stimulants. It is a myth that a legal prescription drug from a doctor is not addictive. There are prescription medications that are just as addictive as illegal drugs. It doesn’t matter if a drug was obtained from a doctor or a street dealer. The biochemical processes involved in addiction are the same for both.

Addictive drugs directly impact the brain’s circuitry and risk and reward system. As tolerance to a substance builds, the body needs more and more of it to get the same desired effect. When someone stops taking the drug or tries to limit their dose, withdrawal symptoms occur. The type of medicine and the severity of a person’s tolerance and addiction will impact the severity and duration of withdrawal symptoms. For example, people who become addicted to a prescription painkiller will sometimes turn to illegal street heroin when their prescription runs out. Prescription opioid use is a significant risk factor for heroin addiction.

What are some alternatives to medications?

Many people will want to avoid the side effects present in certain prescription medications or avoid the risk of dependence and addiction. Mild to moderate cases of depression and anxiety can be treated with talk therapy alone, lifestyle changes, and supplements such as CBD oil. Natural anti-inflammatories can also be useful for mild to moderate chronic pain, and supplements such as CBD oil have been found useful for these conditions. As always, it’s critical that patients speak to their doctor or therapist before using an alternative, or quitting a prescription cold turkey. Some prescriptions must be tapered off to avoid painful withdrawal symptoms or other adverse side effects.

Last updated June 24 2019