If you’re a pharmacy enthusiast looking to learn more, join us on this blast to the past to uncover some of the most important moments in the industry's history. Our new series dives into the wacky, weird, and little-known pieces of the past so that you can have a more rich understanding of the present.

For the latest installment, here are 5 pieces of pharmacy history you might not have known:

1. Filling Scripts, Pouring Sodas

You might’ve heard that Coca-Cola was invented by a pharmacist, but did you know that many of the soft drinks you sip on have similar origin stories?

Take Coke’s biggest rival, for instance. Pepsi first hit the fountains in 1893, except under a different name: “Brad’s Drink.” Its creator, Caleb Bradham, was a North Carolina pharmacist who sought to create a soft drink that tasted good and had health benefits. After perfecting his formula, Bradham started serving up drinks to customers at his pharmacy, many of which reported feeling relief from dyspepsia (indigestion). The drink took off, and by 1898, it was aptly renamed “Pepsi-Cola.”

Just a few years before Bradham, another pharmacist was working on his own recipe in smalltown Waco, TX. Charles Alderton spent his spare time at Morrison’s Old Corner Drug Store formulating a new type of drink for his customers. His inspiration? The smell of the pharmacy. That’s right: Alderton liked the way that the pharmacy smelled and wanted to develop a drink to match. His creation consisted of 23 main flavors, ranging from cola to coriander to sarsaparilla — all mixed together in what we now know as Dr. Pepper.

Who knew that’s what pharmacies smelled like?

Finally, a Canadian pharmacist, John McLaughlin, invented the modern-day Canada Dry Ginger Ale in 1904. After graduating from pharmacy school, McLaughlin went straight to work developing all kinds of concoctions to be served at soda fountains. He developed dry ginger ale as a lighter, more palatable version of the original drink. His formula was patented several years later and has been a hit ever since.

2. Just Say the Magic Word

Double, double, toil and trouble. If you’re a fan of anything wicked or witchy, you’re probably familiar with one magic word: abracadabra. This tongue-twister is used by witches, wizards, and magic-makers in popular culture to cast spells. It’s referenced in everything from TV shows to feature films to the hit single by the Stevie Miller Band.

For all its modern usage, abracadabra has a rich historical background.

The first recording of the word abracadabra is found in a second-century book, Liber Medicinalis (“The Medical Book”). The book, which was written by Roman physician Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, offers remedies for a variety of ailments. In chapter 51, Serenus covers malaria, a mosquito-borne disease that ravaged ancient Rome at the time of his writing. To treat the disease, he offers up an unconventional idea.

Serenus proposes that those suffering from malaria should wear an amulet with the word abracadabra written on it, repeated over and over. With each line, one letter should be removed from the end of the word, so as to form the shape of a triangle. When worn, the amulet was thought to ward off evil spirits and bring healing.  Amulets probably looked something like this:

And, while abracadabra probably didn’t cure many diseases in Serenus’s day, it has garnered plenty of popularity as the years have gone on.

3. The Move to Commercial Medicine

After thousands of years of making and mixing natural medicine, the pharmaceutical industry made a giant leap at the end of the 19th century. In 1883, German chemist Ludwig Knorr created the first synthetic drug, antipyrine (now called phenazone), in a laboratory. This drug, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug and antipyretic, was used to treat pain and relieve fever and opened up new avenues for patients everywhere.

Recognizing its potential, Knorr partnered up with manufacturers and began the process of producing antipyrine on a larger scale. New technology, like Wyeth’s rotary tablet press, allowed manufacturers to synthesize the drug in high quantities and distribute it to more people.

Antipyrine became the first commercially-produced drug on the market. In the process, it laid a blueprint for mass production as a whole.

By the mid-1900s, most pharmacies stocked their shelves with man-made drugs — and pharmacy as we know it was changed forever.

4. That’ll Cost You A Pretty Penny

Since the creation of antipyrine, thousands have drugs have been distributed at pharmacies just like yours. They’ve come in different shapes, sizes, and price points. Over the years, you’ve probably filled your fair share of pricy drugs — but did they ever come out close to six figures?

Rising prescription drug costs mean that many medications come with higher price tags. One drug, though, tops them all.

Zokinvy is an orphan drug designed to treat Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, a rare genetic disease that causes premature aging. Zokinvy is manufactured by Eiger BioPharmaceuticals and was first approved by the FDA in November 2020. Zokinvy’s dosage depends on body surface area, but the average patient takes 200mg per day.

Each 50-mg capsule of Zokinvy is valued at $717, so on average, patients pay $86,040 for a monthly dose. This earns Zokinvy the title of most expensive prescription drug on the market.

After Zokinvy, Myalept is the second most expensive drug, adding up to $74,159 per month. Mavenclad takes third place at $60,371; Raviciti comes in at $57,998; and Actimmune at $55,310.

Numbers like these illustrate the ongoing, ever-growing problem of increasing drug prices. In fact, A RAND study recently found that, between 2000 and 2017, drug spending in the United States increased by 76%. It also found that, compared to other countries, the United States charged 2.5 times more for prescription drugs. No wonder price reform remains one of the top priorities of patients and pharmacists alike.

5. John Wesley’s Remedies

John Wesley is best known as the founder of the Methodist Church. Outside of the pulpit, though, he studied up on medicine and even wrote a fair share of medical texts. The most famous of these is his 1747 book, Primitive Physic: An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. In Primitive Physic, Wesley offers a variety of home remedies. Some of the most notable include treatments for the following conditions:

  • Asthma: A two-week diet of boiled carrots
  • Rabies: A diet of ground liverwort and regular cold baths
  • Nosebleeds: Bloodletting (and not just the nose)
  • Heart palpitations: A pint of cold water, a rag dipped in vinegar applied to the skin, and electric shock
  • Toothaches: Electric shock

We’d suggest calling a doctor or a dentist instead, but John Wesley did live to be 87 — so maybe he was onto something after all.
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