In the mid-1800s, scientists began to synthesize new drugs in the laboratory. Often, these were inspired by or based on chemical compounds found in healing plants.

Synthesis made it possible to create pure medications whose chemical structures could be "tailored" to produce predictable therapeutic effects. It also made it possible to produce medicines in larger quantities without the laborious - and sometimes impossible - job of collecting enough plants at their most potent state to meet the demand.

In the mid-1800s, scientists began to synthesize new drugs in the laboratory. Often, these were inspired by or based on chemical compounds found in healing plants.

Synthesis made it possible to create pure medications whose chemical structures could be "tailored" to produce predictable therapeutic effects. It also made it possible to produce medicines in larger quantities without the laborious - and sometimes impossible - job of collecting enough plants at their most potent state to meet the demand.


© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

One of the first synthesized medicines was salicylic acid, produced by German chemist A.W.H. Kolbe in 1853. His work was prompted by the observation that several plants traditionally used for fever and pain, such as white willow bark (Salix alba) and wintergreen, contain chemicals called salicylates. Salicylic acid did prove useful for treating rheumatism and reducing fever and pain, but it had an unfortunate side effect - it was quite irritating to the digestive system. However, in 1891 a new synthesized drug that built on Kolbe’s work came on the market - acetylsalicylic acid or Aspirin®, now one of the world’s most widely used drugs. Another synthesized medication based on a plant product was novocaine, familiar to decades of dental patients. It was created to replace cocaine, an alkaloid isolated from coca leaves, which had been the standard local anaesthetic for eye and dental surgery in the later 1800s. Novocaine has a similar chemical structure and numbing effect, but lacks some of cocaine’s undesirable side effects.

The d Read More

One of the first synthesized medicines was salicylic acid, produced by German chemist A.W.H. Kolbe in 1853. His work was prompted by the observation that several plants traditionally used for fever and pain, such as white willow bark (Salix alba) and wintergreen, contain chemicals called salicylates. Salicylic acid did prove useful for treating rheumatism and reducing fever and pain, but it had an unfortunate side effect - it was quite irritating to the digestive system. However, in 1891 a new synthesized drug that built on Kolbe’s work came on the market - acetylsalicylic acid or Aspirin®, now one of the world’s most widely used drugs.

Another synthesized medication based on a plant product was novocaine, familiar to decades of dental patients. It was created to replace cocaine, an alkaloid isolated from coca leaves, which had been the standard local anaesthetic for eye and dental surgery in the later 1800s. Novocaine has a similar chemical structure and numbing effect, but lacks some of cocaine’s undesirable side effects.

The discovery of penicillin in 1928 ushered in the era of the so-called "wonder drugs". Penicillin is a natural product produced by a fungus. However, synthesized antibiotics soon followed, with chloromycetin being the first. Penicillin began to be created by biosynthetic means in 1957.


© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Advertisement for penicillin, a natural-source antibiotic.

Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives


By the 1940s and 50s, the number of botanicals being prescribed and used was declining in North America, though they remained the first course of action in many other parts of the world. More and more drugs were chemically synthesized, regardless of their original sources. Newly synthesized drugs introduced in the mid 1900s included broad-spectrum antibiotics such as chloramphenicol, and psychoactive drugs such as chlorpromazine.

The synthesis of new medications now requires years of costly - and sometimes unproductive - research and larger and more specialized equipment. Development of new synthesized medications has become the domain of large pharmaceutical companies and university-based research facilities. Their products are uniform and mass-produced - a far cry from the custom prescriptions compounded by the hands of the local pharmacist or family doctor.

As the 20th century waned, public interest in a return to more traditional uses of medi Read More

By the 1940s and 50s, the number of botanicals being prescribed and used was declining in North America, though they remained the first course of action in many other parts of the world. More and more drugs were chemically synthesized, regardless of their original sources. Newly synthesized drugs introduced in the mid 1900s included broad-spectrum antibiotics such as chloramphenicol, and psychoactive drugs such as chlorpromazine.

The synthesis of new medications now requires years of costly - and sometimes unproductive - research and larger and more specialized equipment. Development of new synthesized medications has become the domain of large pharmaceutical companies and university-based research facilities. Their products are uniform and mass-produced - a far cry from the custom prescriptions compounded by the hands of the local pharmacist or family doctor.

As the 20th century waned, public interest in a return to more traditional uses of medicinal plants increased, although not without much controversy about efficacy and safety. However, medicines of botanical origin never did disappear. They remained in our medicine cabinets, though often as chemical replicas.


© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Chloromycetin®, the first synthetic antibiotic.

Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • name at least one synthesized medication based on a plant product;
  • explain why synthesis was consider a big help in 1800s.

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