Postwar expansion

In the past 70 years, the pharmaceutical industry has become a huge global enterprise

After World War II, drug companies led a therapeutic revolution. Key discoveries of the early 20th century – notably insulin, vitamins and antibiotics – were mass manufactured and available to all.

New compounds were ushered in: cortisone for inflammation, drugs to treat heart conditions, antibiotics to cure syphilis and tuberculosis, and psychiatric drugs to treat (rather than lock up) the mentally ill.

Yet the ‘white heat of technology’ that inspired the 1960s has given way to a more sceptical mood, and pharmaceuticals are no exception. The drugs had side-effects or were addictive. Bacteria developed resistance. Progress in tackling some diseases has been disappointingly slow. Doctors are accused of dispensing medicines with little thought for patients’ greater wellbeing.

At the same time, concerns have grown about the tactics of pharmaceutical companies – their marketing muscle, their political influence, their activities in low-income countries and their alleged manipulation of clinical trial data to support their own products.

Pharma is said to be more profitable than any other business. In 2012, global spending on prescription drugs reached almost US$1 trillion (£0.6tn), and it is estimated that this figure will be topped by 2017.

Are such sums excessive? Drug discovery is a risky and expensive business and, in return, pharmaceutical companies provide life-saving medicines. But some people have voiced concerns over how the industry operates. They accuse drug companies of spending huge sums promoting their products directly to doctors and lobbying politicians.

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