Origin & Development of Common Drugs & Medicines

Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has a master's degree in cancer biology and has taught high school and college biology.

This lesson will explore the origins of some of the most common drugs and medicines we use on a regular basis. We will also discuss how the drugs are developed and how development of drugs has changed over the years.


People get them over the counter, from the pharmacist, and in some cases, on the street. Drugs are pretty much everywhere now. We have drugs that are used as medicine to cure almost anything that ails us. Some medicines help relieve pain, some get rid of bacterial infections, some try to prevent or make your body perform some type of action, while others are there just to simply make us feel good.

Scientists have spent and continue to spend large amounts of time finding, creating, and developing drugs. In fact, the pharmaceutical business is one of the largest industries in the world. This makes sense when you think about it. We all want to be healthy and feel good. Let's take a look at how some of the most common medicines and drugs came into our lives.



Almost all adults will tell you that they have taken an antibiotic at some point in their lives. Antibiotics are medicines that cure bacterial infections. Bacteria are considered to be microorganisms, and guess what has the ability to kill this microorganism? Another microorganism! Antibiotics originated from fungi. There are also some antibiotics made from various strains of bacteria.

Narcotics and Other Illicit Drugs

Many narcotics and illicit drugs, both legal and illegal, come from plants. Codeine, cocaine, THC, morphine, some types of alcohol and oxycodone are all derived from plants. Imagine that! Almost every addictive drug comes from plants.

THC comes from the Cannabis plant also referred to as the marijuana plant
Picture of Cannabis plant

Codeine, morphine, and oxycodone come from different species of poppy plants. Cocaine comes from the coca plant. THC comes from the marijuana plant. Vodka, a type of alcohol, comes from potato plants, while grain alcohol comes from corn.


The biggest illegal drug being abused in America is methamphetamine. This is an amphetamine drug created from ephedrine. You will notice the word 'created' in the definition. This is because methamphetamine was created in a laboratory. Its components are manufactured. The ephedrine used in methamphetamine is derived from a plant, but other chemicals are added to make ephedrine.


Drugs have evolved quite a bit over the years. The earliest drugs were developed almost exclusively from plants and microorganisms, while more modern drugs are largely produced by combining chemicals in laboratories.

Plants and Microorganisms

For instance, let's look at those antibiotics from earlier in the lesson. The first antibiotic discovered and made available was penicillin. It was actually discovered accidentally by Alexander Fleming as part of an experiment on bacteria. He found that a petri dish containing mold, a type of fungi, had an area where bacteria were not present, indicating the mold kept the bacteria from growing.

Penicillin was the first antibiotic used to cure bacterial infections such as gonorrhea
Picture of an old ad for penicillin

He started the process of isolating pure penicillin from the 'Penicillium' fungi for use against bacterial infections. Once it was isolated, work also had to be done in order to produce penicillin in large quantities. This became a collaborative effort among scientists from different countries. They finally came up with a way to isolate penicillin and increase the amount so it could be prescribed on a wide scale. This same process had to take place for medications derived from plants as well.

Chemical Concoctions

The advances we have made in technology have allowed scientists to create drugs by combining chemicals. This initially happened because scientists realized that a lot of what goes on in the body is due to chemicals the body produces. They took that knowledge and started creating combinations of chemicals that would have the same effect on the body as the naturally occurring ones. This is seen quite a bit with hormone medications. The hormones we take are similar enough to the ones in the body that they produce the same effect as the natural ones.

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