The modern world of pharmaceutical distribution is constantly changing and rapidly evolving, as our knowledge of how our bodies work and how different medical compounds react to them evolve as well.

Of course, the concept of medicine itself is one of humanity’s oldest inventions; given how many visible and invisible dangers there are, humans would not have gotten as far as they did without some way to protect themselves from illness or injury.

What did take thousands of years to develop, however, was a process by which humanity could take traditional medicines that seemed to have the potential for treating people beyond superstition and explore how and why they can be used to treat medicine.

Finding out where that process lies involves taking a trip through the history of modern medicine and finding the first pharmaceutical product that was produced by what we can recognise as a drug discovery process.

The Dawn Of Modern Medicine

Arguably the very first modern medical invention was the development of a vaccine for smallpox when Edward Jenner learned that people who caught cowpox were less likely to catch smallpox and developed a vaccination based on the ancient medical practice of variolation.

However, Mr Jenner’s method would not have been approved, since it involved deliberately infecting a young boy with smallpox to prevent a more dangerous disease.

There were several other developments in the early history of medicine, from the development of digitalis from the foxglove plant for a rather small number of heart conditions to the understanding of the effects of vitamin C on preventing scurvy.

However, even after 150 years of medical development, there were only a handful of medicines used to treat disease by the start of the 20th century, which along with digitalis included:

  • Aspirin: this willow bark extract was used to treat fevers and is still sold and sometimes used to this day.
  • Mercury: before the effects of mercury poisoning were truly understood, it was used to treat syphilis.
  • Quinine: an extract from the Cinchona tree, quinine is still used in some situations to treat malaria, although it is used as part of an emergency standby treatment.
  • Ipecacuanha: the Cephaelis plant’s root and bark could be extracted as a treatment for dysentery.

Even by the early 1900s, most primary medications could be easily traced back to traditional medication. This, however, was set to change in 1928.

The First Antibiotic

Whilst there were suspicions about the efficacy of penicillin, the big breakthrough moment came when Alexander Fleming noticed that a culture plate of the bacteria staphylococcus aureus was contaminated by a fungus and this fungus stopped the bacteria was growing.

He initially believed it to be an enzyme, but after some research later found that what Sir Fleming had found was, in fact, one of the very first antibiotics to ever be discovered.

However, he also found out that the old approach of stumbling into scientific discoveries was not enough to actually create an effective pharmaceutical product, and it would take a team at Oxford University led by Ernst Chain and Howard Florey to finally isolate and use penicillin during the Second World War.

This formed the platform for the ever-evolving modern pharmaceutical industry and the discovery of ever-more sophisticated drugs.