History of Pharmacology

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Pharmacology and its very basic concepts go back a very long way. However, it wasn't until surprisingly relatively recently that this field took true scientific root. Find out when this happened in this lesson.

What Is Pharmacology?

Whether you've bought one over the counter at a local store or you had one prescribed to you by a doctor, you've probably taken one drug or another in your life to alleviate pain or an infection or something else. It sometimes seems miraculous that we can just pop a pill and expect that things will get better shortly. However, we didn't come around to this very quickly as it took hundreds of years for pharmacology to evolve from, at best, pseudoscience, to the immensely important scientific field it is today.

Pharmacology is the study of how chemicals (other than food alone) interact with a living organism in order to produce their effects. Let's go over a brief history of this branch of science.

Early History

Long ago, in the 1st century AD, there lived a Greek physician by the name of Pedanius Dioscorides. He was the author of a work called De materia medica. This work encompassed botanical terminology as well as how herbs and plants could be used in medicine. Believe it or not, his work was one of the leading pharmacological texts for the next 1600 years or so!

In medieval times apothecaries, in a way crude pharmacists of their day, used to prepare all sort of strange concoctions, including those of herbs, in order to treat their patients. Suffice it to say, their work wasn't all that scientific nor, as a result, all that successful. Apothecaries not only prepared drugs but also prescribed tem.

In the early 1800s, however, some apothecaries decided they had no interest in treating patients and were more interested in preparing medical compounds instead. By the end of the century, using new advances in chemistry and biology at the time, scientists across various disciplines:

  • Isolated, purified, and even standardized some drugs like morphine
  • Conducted experiments on animals to show what effects a drug may exert upon the body, how, and why.

It wasn't until a brilliant scientist, by the name of Oswald Schmiedeberg, came along that pharmacology became a true and distinct scientific branch of its own in a big way. He studied the pharmacology of various compounds, including chloroform, and published an important text called the Outline of Pharmacology. In his many decades of practice and teaching, Schmiedeberg was the person who almost single-handedly trained the majority of other men who would then become leaders in pharmacology all over the world in the years to come. This included American John Jacob Abel, the first chair of pharmacology at any U.S. university. Due to his contributions to the field, Schmiedeberg is now known as 'the father of pharmacology'.

Oswald Schmiedeberg

Modern History

Thanks to the work of Schmiedeberg, Abel, and others like them, the field of pharmacology grew rapidly in the 20th and 21st centuries. Many drugs, from lifesaving antibiotics, to important hormonal compounds like insulin (to treat diabetes) were developed. Pharmacologists not only studied what effects a drug would have on an animal or a human, they also studied the drug itself. Meaning, they would study the structure of the compound and relate tiny changes within the compound itself to the effects those changes would have upon the way a drug would act.

While Germany led the way in pharmacological research around the time of World War II, it was the United States in particular who led the way, in many respects, after the war. Here, the pharmacological branch of science would continue to expand not only in academia but in what is now a massive for-profit pharmaceutical industry that delivers drugs of all sorts. Research by both academic and corporate scientists has yielded all sorts of important, taken for granted, and life-saving medication, such as:

  • Over the counter pain relievers and fever reducers
  • Heart and blood pressure medication
  • Anesthetics

And many more.

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