The development of experimental pharmacology 1790-1850
Bickel MH. Universitat Bern.
Gesnerus Suppl. 2000;46:7-158


1. The use of drugs goes back to the origins of mankind. In historical times oral drug-lore became codified empiric drug theory (materia medica) and ultimately, in the 19th century, experimental pharmacology. The initiator of experimental pharmacology as an independent medical discipline is Rudolf Buchheim (1820-1879). This study traces the pathways leading to Buchheim and identifies his predecessors between 1790 and 1850. The history of empirical pharmacology and its major theories in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and early modern times is summarized. For the 18th century an overview is given on early attempts at experimental testing of drug effects and on the new therapeutic systems and medical sects. 2. Many authors have dealt with the grievances of pharmacology and therapy between 1790 and 1850, among them chief representatives of contemporary medicine like the French Fourcroy, Bichat, Pinel, Alibert, Magendie, and the Germans Schonlein, Mitscherlich, Wunderlich, Henle, and Oesterlen. Their criticisms are a means for a better understanding of the situation. They cover the following aspects. Pharmacology is distorted by speculations on the causes of drug action and confusion with regard to terminology and indications. Drug actions are being tested with inadequate methods. An increase in the number of drugs is mistaken for an increase in knowledge. The statement is made that pharmacology is the least developed of all medical subjects. The critics point out that only a more developed chemistry, physiology, and etiology will allow a scientific pharmacology. The drug theories of the medical sects are likewise rejected. Polypharmacy, composite drugs, and absurd formulas are regarded with contempt. Aggressive drug therapy is repudiated, but this easily results in avoidance of drugs and in therapeutic nihilism. 3. In 1799 Johann Christian Reil elaborated his principles for a future pharmacology. Reil establishes the rules for clinical experiments on which a scientific pharmacology should be based. His goal is to explain the actions of drugs which are the results of biochemical alterations. Even though Reil's program is a theoretical conception, it anticipates a situation that was to take shape half a century later. Also in 1799 Adolph Friedrich Nolde published detailed rules for the critical examination of drug actions in patients, including aspects like placebo, compliance, statistics, and several ethical rules. Reil's and Nolde's programmatic messages vanished in the emerging German medicine of "Naturphilosophie". 4. In the decades after 1800 medicine was at its zenith in the Paris School. It became a hospital medicine, based on anatomy and pathology. Francois Magendie was one of its representatives. He started out as a physician in 1808 and became a physiologist who soon surpassed his teachers Bichat and Richerand. Magendie's sole interest were facts, which had to be unravelled by experiments, mainly on animals. He created modern physiology based on the laws of physics and chemistry. Nevertheless, he remained an outsider among the Paris School. Bichat and other predecessors of Magendie had considered an experimental pharmacology based on physiology, however, they did not provide knowledge resulting from experiments. Magendie published his first experimental study of a pharmacological problem in 1809. From then on he studied the mechanism and site of action of drugs and used them at the same time as tools for the investigation of physiological processes. After Serturner's isolation of morphine from opium the preparation of pure alkaloids became a specialty of French pharmacists and chemists. Magendie sought their collaboration from 1817 on, convinced that pharmacology and therapy must be based on both physiology and chemistry. In 1821 he published his Formulaire pour la preparation et l'emploi de plusieurs nouveaux medicamens which marks the beginning of modern pharmacology. It grew throughout eight editions up to 1835
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and further reading
Future Opioids
BLTC Research
Utopian Surgery?
The Good Drug Guide
The Abolitionist Project
The Hedonistic Imperative
The Reproductive Revolution
Critique of Huxley's Brave New World