Five drugs that changed the world are anesthesia, birth control, nitroglycerin, penicillin and diazepam

It’s hard to measure the impact of any single drug on world history. But here are five drugs that we can safely say have made a huge difference in our lives, often in ways we didn’t expect.

They have brought some incredible benefits. But they have also usually brought with them a number of complications that we need to look at critically.

It’s a good reminder that today’s miracle drug can be tomorrow’s problem drug.

1. Anesthesia

In the late 1700s, the English chemist Joseph Priestley created a gas he called “phlogistic nitrous air” (laughing gas). English chemist Humphry Davy thought it could be used to relieve pain during surgery, but instead became a recreational drug.

It wasn’t until 1834 that we reached another milestone. Back then, the French chemist Jean-Baptiste Dumas named a new gas chloroform. Scottish physician James Young Simpson used it to assist childbirth in 1847.

Soon, anesthesia was used more frequently during surgery, resulting in better recovery rates. Prior to anesthesia, surgical patients often died from shock from pain.

But any drug that can render people unconscious can also cause harm. Modern anesthetics are still dangerous because of the risks of nervous system suppression.

“A young woman demonstrates an anesthesia machine from 1910 with the first mixture of oxygen, chloroform and ether in the factory museum in Lübeck.

Markus Scholz/Picture Alliance via Getty

2. Penicillin

What happened to Scottish doctor Alexander Fleming in 1928 is one of the classic stories of accidental drug discovery.

Fleming went on vacation and left some cultures of the bacterium Streptococcus on his laboratory bench. When he returned, he found that Penicillium (a fungal contaminant) in the air had stopped the growth of the streptococci.

Australian pathologist Howard Florey and his team stabilized penicillin and conducted the first human trials. With American funding, penicillin was mass-produced and changed the course of World War II. It has been used to treat thousands of service workers.

Penicillin and its descendants are hugely successful front-line drugs for diseases that once killed millions of people. However, their widespread use has resulted in drug-resistant strains of bacteria.


Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin.


3. Nitroglycerin

Nitroglycerin was invented in 1847 and supplanted gunpowder as the world’s most powerful explosive. It was also the first modern drug used to treat angina, chest pain associated with heart disease.

Factory workers exposed to the explosives developed headaches and facial flushing. This was because nitroglycerin is a vasodilator — it widens (opens) blood vessels.

London doctor William Murrell experimented with nitroglycerin on himself and tried it on his angina patients. They got relief almost immediately.

Nitroglycerin has enabled millions of people with angina to lead relatively normal lives. It also paved the way for drugs like blood pressure medicines, beta-blockers, and statins. These drugs have lengthened lifespan and increased the average lifespan in western countries.

But because people’s lives are now being extended, there are now higher death rates from cancer and other non-communicable diseases. Thus, in an unexpected way, nitroglycerin turned out to be a world-changing drug.


Mark Oniffrey/Wikimedia Commons

4. The pill

In 1951, US birth control advocate Margaret Sanger asked researcher Gregory Pincus to develop an effective hormonal contraceptive, funded by heiress Katharine McCormick.

Pincus found that progesterone helped stop ovulation and used this to develop a test pill. Clinical trials have been conducted on vulnerable women, particularly in Puerto Rico, where there have been concerns about informed consent and side effects.

The new drug was launched by GD Searle & Co as Enovid in 1960 with US Food and Drug Administration approval. This was granted because the risk of pregnancy was considered higher than the risk of side effects such as blood clots and stroke.

It took ten years to show a link between oral contraceptive use and serious side effects. After a US government investigation in 1970, hormone levels on the pill were drastically reduced. Another result was the Patient Information Sheet, which you can now find in all prescription drug packages.

The pill caused major global demographic shifts with smaller families and increased incomes as women re-entered the workforce. However, it still raises questions about how the medical profession has been experimenting on women’s bodies.


Annette Riedl/Picture Alliance via Getty

5. Diazepam

The first benzodiazepine, a type of nervous system depressant, was developed in 1955 and marketed as Librium by the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche.

This and related drugs were not sold as a “cure” for anxiety. Instead, they were meant to help people undergo psychotherapy, which was seen as the real solution.

In 1959, Polish-American chemist Leo Sternbach and his research group chemically altered Librium to create a much stronger drug. This was diazepam, marketed as Valium from 1963.

Cheap, readily available drugs like this have had a tremendous impact. From 1969 to 1982, Valium was the top-selling drug in the United States. These drugs created a culture of using drugs to manage stress and anxiety.

Valium paved the way for modern antidepressants. It was harder (but not impossible) to overdose on these newer drugs, and they had fewer side effects. The first SSRI, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, was fluoxetine, which was marketed as Prozac from 1987.

Philippa Martyr is Lecturer in Pharmacology and Women’s Health at the University of Western Australia’s School of Biomedical Sciences Five drugs that changed the world are anesthesia, birth control, nitroglycerin, penicillin and diazepam


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