Heavy Metal and Medicine | Pharmacy History

Grab a seat and take out your textbook: it’s time for yet another lesson in Pharmacy History.

In this new series, we dive into the wacky, weird, and little-known moments of the industry’s history to help you form a complete picture of the present.

If you’re looking to learn a new fact, hear a new story, or find yet another nugget of knowledge to keep on hand, join us on this blast to the past; and get ready to learn along the way.

For the latest installment of the series, here are 5 pieces of Pharmacy History you might not have known:


The King of Poison: Mithridates VI

In storybooks and on battlegrounds, poison is a powerful weapon used all throughout history.

Especially in the ancient world, poison was used to kill off enemies and gain power: making it popular among kings and leaders alike.

One king, though, spent his life trying to overcome the power of poison, only to regret it in the end.

Mithridates VI — also known as Mithridates the Great —  was the King of Pontus, a war-torn kingdom in Persia, from 120-63 BCE.


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In his nearly 57-year reign, Mithridates ruled with an iron fist and racked up enemies all around. Enemy #1, though, was the Roman Empire.

As a young boy, Mithridates stood watch as Roman soldiers poisoned his father. When he ascended to the throne, he swore that he wouldn’t meet the same fate. He studied up on poisons and figured out that by building up a tolerance, he could avoid an unexpected death.

Mithridates consumed small amounts of arsenic and venom for years, taking just enough to feel an effect but not enough to cause harm.

Ever the toxicologist, he even claimed to develop a “universal antidote” for all identified toxins, known as Mithridate (these claims, though, are largely unsupported).

With more immunity, Mithridates felt free to engage in conflict all across the ancient world. But after a failed battle tour took him from the throne in 63 BCE and left the Romans wielding the power, Mithridates knew that he was on the chopping block.

Rather than die at the hands of the Romans, though, he decided to die by suicide. His method of choice? Poison.

Here’s the kicker, though: when Mithridates drank a lethal dose of arsenic, he didn’t die. He just became ill. Years of ingesting poisons had boosted his immunity — so much so that now, when he wanted to die, he couldn’t.

Instead, he had to hand his sword to a close friend and ask him to do the deed.

At the end of the day, the king who feared assassination by poison was unable to die from it because of his immunity. That’s irony at its finest.


Do You Have a Prescription for That?

During the Prohibition years, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bottle of booze: unless you happened to own a pharmacy. In the midst of all its alcohol restrictions, the United States had 2 (legal) exceptions for getting your fix: sacramental and medicinal.

On the medicinal side, some spirits — like brandy and whiskey — were thought to cure a wide range of illnesses, from toothaches to high blood pressure to depression.

As such, the US allowed doctors to prescribe, and pharmacists to dispense, liquor.

The liquor was bottle-in-bond and 100-proof, sold with a handy-dandy dosage cup that ensured patients wouldn’t overserve themselves. A prescription typically looked something like this:

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Aside from giving patients a way to get the edge off, liquor helped pharmacies attract new customers and reach new markets.

In fact, it’s no secret that Walgreens took off during the Prohibition Era — with a 2,500% increase in business — largely because of their booze supply.

We already knew that beverages like Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper got pharmacies started, but maybe whiskey made them take off.

Heavy Metal and Medicine: Ronnie James Dio

If you’re a fan of rock and roll, you’ve probably blared your fair share of Black Sabbath songs, like “War Pigs,” “Paranoid,” and “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.”

But did you know that one of the most iconic rock groups in the world has a connection to pharmacy?

That’s right: before taking over for Ozzy Ozborne in 1979, Black Sabbath lead singer Ronnie James Dio had a brief stint in pharmacy.


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Growing up, Dio took an interest in medicine. When he started school at the University of Buffalo in 1960, he decided to major in pharmacy. Dio attended pharmacy school for 2 years but never graduated.

He did start one of his first bands his freshman year, though — and then went on to play in bands like Elf, Rainbow, and of course, Black Sabbath.

It goes without saying that Dio will go down in the history books as a metal legend, but it’s still interesting to consider a career in a white coat instead of a leather jacket.


Where’s All That Money Going?

When you flip on the TV, you almost always come across drug advertisements.

These ads typically show a smiling person — usually taking a long stroll out on a sunny day — who explains the benefits of a particular drug. Then, as background music plays, they read off a long list of potential (and serious) side effects associated with the drug.

The contrast is striking: what you see isn’t usually what you get. That’s why, at this point, drug ads are almost a running joke.

And, while they are common practice in the United States, they aren’t hardly anywhere else. In fact, the US is one of only two countries (including New Zealand) that allows direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs.

Why does the US give manufacturers a pass, when other countries don’t? Profit, of course.

Despite their dangers, drug ads are extremely profitable.

And pharmaceutical companies are willing to invest in them. After the first pharma television ad aired in 1983 — with the pain reliever Rufen — drug makers saw their potential; and they took off from there.

In the past 5 years, drug ad spending has more than doubled. In 2020 alone, total ad spend topped $6.58 billion. That's a bit above the 2019 total of $6.56 billion, but it’s still noteworthy in a year that saw U.S. advertising spending drop by 13%.

In fact, more money goes into advertising drugs than it does into research and development. Financial reports from some of the top pharmaceutical companies show just where their money is going:


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Research shows that it’s money matters that most to drug makers — and consumers should stay on alert.

That’s why pharmacists are responsible for 1. making sure that patients have the right information about prescription drugs, including their benefits and risks; and 2. ensuring that a particular drug is the right fit for a particular patient.

Potentially dangerous drug ads are on the rise, but independent pharmacists can do their part to protect patients.


Bad Hangover? Try Pickled Sheep’s Eyes

After you picked up your prescribed bottle of booze in the Prohibition Era and found yourself drinking more than recommended, you might wake up with a hangover.

Instead of suffering through, you could try an unconventional remedy to spruce yourself up.

Many cultures purport that pickled items can cure a hangover — and in Poland, you’re even supposed to drink pickle juice straight from the jar. But during the Genghis Khan days, Mongolians took it a step further.

They prescribed a healthy dose of none other than pickled sheep’s eyes to get rid of the pesky headaches, nausea, and fatigue associated with hangovers.

And it must’ve been effective. Even today, this cure is still used in the area.

Sheep’s eyes are now served alongside a glass of tomato juice in a dynamic duo called the “Mongolian Mary.”

Any takers?


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