Pharma is born

The emergence of the pharmaceutical industry in the 19th century revolutionised the way we access medicines

The Victorian era saw the beginnings of the pharmaceutical industry. By the end of the 19th century, medical doctors had become established pillars of society. They would diagnose illness and write prescriptions. The medicines themselves would be prepared by apothecaries – the dispensing chemists of the day. This conventional system coexisted with a flourishing trade in ‘patent medicines’ or quack cures.

The Victorian era saw a series of profound changes. First, the modern scientific disciplines began to emerge, and science began to move into specialist facilities such as laboratories. With the emergence of germ theory, it became clear that microbes were responsible for many of the killer diseases of the day.

Paul Ehrlich and others proposed the idea of ‘magic bullets’ – chemical compounds that attacked and destroyed only infectious organisms. Chemists began to purify the active principles from plants to provide a supply of drugs. Morphine was isolated from the opium poppy, atropine from the deadly nightshade and colchicine from the autumn crocus.

Making medicines

But yields were low. Chemists began to explore ways to make useful compounds by chemical synthesis. In the 1850s, 18-year-old prodigy William Henry Perkins tried to synthesise quinine from coal tar; instead, he produced the first synthetic dye, mauvein (mauve). This colour, associated with royalty and privilege, was difficult to obtain by natural means and highly prized. Perkins made a fortune and also helped create a successful synthetic dye industry, which Germany came to dominate.

In a neat twist of fate, the chemicals produced by the dye industry turned out to have medically useful properties, leading to the appearance of many famous pharmaceutical company names, including Hoechst, Bayer, Sandoz and Ciba.

Lead image:

Wellcome Library, London CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Drug Development’ in January 2008 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Medicine, History
Drug Development
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development