In the world of pharmaceutical distribution, medicines are supplied in several different forms to be administered to a patient.

Whilst some medicines need to be injected directly into the bloodstream, others can be taken orally, which usually takes the form of either a liquid or one of several forms of tablet.

The history of the tablet, however, goes back much further than you would expect and was initially developed in Ancient Egypt, according to retired pharmacist and pill historian George Griffenhagen.

Early Pilula

Before 1500 BC, nearly all medicines were mixtures of different herbs, resins and seeds that were designed to be mixed into water or beer, particularly among the Assyrians.

In Ancient Egypt, however, tablets were used instead, with these same active ingredients being mixed with honey, grease or bread dough and rolled by hand into little balls to be swallowed alongside treatment techniques and incantations.

This similar principle would be adopted by other ancient civilisations of the period, such as the Greek “katapotia” (which translates to an object to be swallowed), and the Roman “pilula”.

In Rome, pill making equipment worked in a very similar way to dough shaping, where clay or dough was pressed into a long groove, which would, in turn, create a string that could be cut into small discs.

A Spoonful Of Sugar

One problem that has endured for much of the history of medication is the problem with actually swallowing pills, particularly earlier dough balls and discs that would have been considerably larger than most tablets seen today.

They were bitter, coarse and rough and since at least the medieval period people have found ways to make them go down easier. This would often take the form of using dew, juice, honey and other slippery plant substances to lubricate the tablet and help it go down easier.

One rather expensive and unfortunate approach was to use gold and silver to gild the tablet, which whilst making the pill smooth enough to go down easily, also meant that it would often not actually break down, simply passing through the body.

This, along with the moisture requirement to make tablets at the time, meant that in some cases ancient medicine simply would not work

This would begin to change in the 19th century thanks to several parallel medical advances.

The biggest was the invention and patenting of a pressurised pill-creation process by William Brockedon in 1843. This uses a high-pressure die process to create pills without the need for an additional adhesive, allowing for smaller, longer-lasting and more effective medications.

As well as this, sugar-coated films for tablets were also invented, removing the need to use more homemade spices and sweeteners to help the medicine go down better.

Finally, two versions of the pill capsule were invented, which became the most effective and efficient method of taking medication, as only the gelatin capsule shell had to break down for the powder or pellets to enter the bloodstream.

The first, interestingly, enough, was the soft gel capsule, known better today as the liquid capsule. This was a single piece capsule of gelatin that was sealed and was an effective way to include liquid ingredients in a solid tablet. This was initially invented in 1833.

The other, invented in 1847 by James Murdoch, was the two-piece telescoping capsule, which is the longer cylindrical commonly used today. The two halves are separated, filled with powder and then pressed together.