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J R Soc Med. 2005 November; 98(11): 517–518.
PMCID: PMC1276005

Drug Discovery—A History

Reviewed by Henry Connor

Walter Sneader
468 pp Price £34.95 ISBN 0-471-89980-1 (p/b)
Chichester: John Wiley .

I must thank Dr Kamran Abbasi for inviting me to review this book because if I had seen it on the shelf in a bookshop I would almost certainly have passed it by; and, in doing so, I would have missed a book of great merit and considerable scholarship. The book deals first with those drugs from historical eras, then with those derived from naturally occurring precursors and prototypes and finally with the wholly synthetic drugs. In general this arrangement works well for a history of the discovery of drugs—which is, of course, the purpose of this book—though it does produce some rather odd bedfellows; for example, the section on oral rehydration is followed by one on disinfectants. It is less satisfactory for those who wish to read about the history of the different drugs used in the treatment of certain diseases such as asthma or diabetes because the reader must flip continually from one section and from one chapter to another, and also because it is less easy to understand the relative importance of different groups of drugs as the treatment of those diseases has evolved over time.

However, as a history of the discovery of individual drugs and of categories of drugs this book is excellent. Sneader writes fluently and lucidly, his research has been scrupulous and his evaluation of the data is appropriately critical. The book abounds with pertinent original references, and not just to the drugs themselves; if you want to lay your hands on the seminal references to the work by Goldblatt and his colleagues on the role of renin in renal hypertension in 1934 or on Ahlquist’s concept of alpha and beta adrenoreceptors in 1948 you will find them here. There are also first-class vignettes on such topics as the Paracelsians, Brunonianism and pneumatic chemistry, to mention only a few. Readers will also learn, if like me they did not already know, how Horace Walpole introduced the word ‘serendipity’ (from the three princes of Serendip who had repeatedly made fortuitous discoveries) and how the discovery by Henry Salter, a London physician, that strong black coffee could relieve asthma, was later to lead to the finding that theophylline was a bronchodilator. And there are many more such anecdotes. Inevitably there are omissions though all are of a minor nature and largely a matter of personal choice. I was disappointed that the chapter on herbals mentions only those which appeared in printed formats, effectively therefore just those published after 1480. Although the earlier manuscript herbals inevitably had a more limited circulation, they did still have a substantial impact on medical practice. This was especially true of those written in the vernacular, such as the English translation in 1373 by John Lelamour, a schoolmaster in Hereford, of a Latin herbal, a work which also served as one of the earliest English texts on gardening. Those with connections to the Scottish capital city will read the comprehensive section on the use of Dakin’s solution as an antiseptic and will then ponder the omission of any mention of Edinburgh University Solution Of Lime (Eusol), until they remember that the author is based in Glasgow.

For most people this will not be a book to read from cover to cover but one into which they will dip repeatedly with pleasure and profit. It will probably be used primarily as a reference book and it does have the essential accompaniment of any such work, namely an excellent index; albeit one in a font size so small as to trouble the eyes of some older readers.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press