The History of Pharmacology

The Intersection of Religion and Medicine

At the dawn of human civilization, religion and medicine were inextricably linked. Priests, shamans, and holy people were the original pharmacologists, wielding the power of both spiritual and medicinal healing. They were the mediators between the earthly and the divine, and their influence within communities was largely based on their ability to cure ailments through drugs.

Originally, divine intervention was the cornerstone of every therapeutic process. However, as knowledge about the effects of drugs expanded, the role of divine intervention began to fade. The priests themselves became the primary healers, and this shift led to a growing understanding of the curative powers of natural products. This evolution marked a significant change in the relationship between humanity and its gods, laying the foundation for a science-based practice of medicine.

Contributions of Diverse Cultures

Ancient China

The ancient Chinese were pioneers in the field of medicine. Texts like the Pen Tsao, written around 2700 B.C., classified medicinal plants and their uses. The Chinese doctrine of signatures, which posited that “like cures like,” also explains the importance of animal-based medicines in their pharmacopoeia.

Ancient Egypt

Egyptian medical papyri, such as the Ebers papyrus, contained elaborate prescriptions. These prescriptions were strikingly similar to modern ones, detailing active substances, vehicles for suspending the drug, and methods of preparation and application. The Egyptians were particularly fond of cathartics and purgatives, believing that they expelled evil spirits that caused illness.

Ancient Greece

Greek medicine was heavily influenced by Egyptian practices. Texts like the Iliad and the Odyssey describe the use of natural substances for medical purposes. The Greeks were fascinated by the toxicological aspects of drugs, and Plato’s description of Socrates’ death by hemlock is a testament to their deep understanding of toxicology.

Central and South American Cultures

Despite being isolated from the Old World, the indigenous cultures of Central and South America developed a rich tradition of drug lore. Their medicine was a blend of religious rituals and herbal remedies, and they made extensive use of poultices, decoctions, and infusions.

The Birth of Modern Pharmacology

The Galenic Approach

Galen, a physician of the Roman era, was a proponent of polypharmacy. He believed that combining multiple drugs could balance their inherent properties, such as warmth or coldness, to treat patients. However, his approach often led to overcomplication due to insufficient data.

Standardization of Medicinal Agents

By the first century A.D., the need for standardized and uniform medicinal agents had become apparent. The turn of the 19th century saw the isolation of active principles from crude drugs, thanks to advancements in chemistry. Morphine, emetine, quinine, and strychnine were among the first to be isolated, paving the way for quantitative studies on drug action.

The Rise of Experimental Pharmacology

The late 19th century saw the establishment of the first pharmacology laboratory by Rudolph Bucheim in Estonia. His pupil, Oswald Schmiedeberg, further propagated the discipline by training numerous pharmacologists. One of his students, John Jacob Abel, is considered the founder of American pharmacology. Abel’s contributions, including the isolation of epinephrine and insulin, were monumental in establishing pharmacology as a separate discipline.

History of Pharmacology

Founding Principles and Modern Advances

Pharmacology today is distinguished by its focus on understanding both normal and abnormal human physiology through the application of drugs. It studies various aspects such as drug concentration, time-action relationships, metabolism, structure-activity relationships, and drug interactions. Over the past century, the field has seen extraordinary growth, largely due to contributions from biological sciences and technological advancements.


The journey of pharmacology from its roots in religious rituals to a science-based discipline is a testament to human ingenuity and the quest for knowledge. It reflects the contributions of diverse cultures and the relentless pursuit of understanding the complexities of drug action. As we look to the future, the field continues to evolve, promising new breakthroughs that will further revolutionize medicine.

Thus, pharmacology stands as a unique blend of tradition, science, and innovation, continually shaping and reshaping our understanding of health and disease.

Modern Pharmacology with Clinical. Applications, Craig CR and Stitzell RE (Eds.), Little, Brown, and Co., Boston, MA, FifthEdition, 1997.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Always seek the advice of a healthcare provider with any questions regarding a medical condition.

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