Since time immemorial, medicaments have been used for treating disease in humans and animals. The herbals of antiquity describe the therapeutic powers of certain plants and minerals. Belief in the curative powers of plants and certain substances rested exclusively upon traditional knowledge, that is, empirical information not subjected to critical examination.
Claudius Galen (129–200 A.D.) first attempted to consider the theoretical background of pharmacology. Both theory and practical experience were to contribute equally to the rational use of medicines through interpretation of observed and experienced results. “The empiricists say that all is found by experience. We, however, maintain that it is found in part by experience, in part by theory. Neither experience nor theory alone is apt to discover all.”
Theophrastus von Hohenheim (1493– 1541 A.D.), called Paracelsus, began to quesiton doctrines handed down from antiquity, demanding knowledge of the active ingredient(s) in prescribed remedies, while rejecting the irrational concoctions and mixtures of medieval medicine. He prescribed chemically defined substances with such success that professional enemies had him prosecuted as a poisoner. Against such accusations, he defended himself with the thesis that has become an axiom of pharmacology:
“If you want to explain any poison properly, what then isn‘t a poison? All things
are poison, nothing is without poison; the dose alone causes a thing not to be poison.”
Johann Jakob Wepfer (1620–1695) was the first to verify by animal experimentation assertions about pharmacological or toxicological actions.
“I pondered at length. Finally I resolved to clarify the matter by experiments.”
Rudolf Buchheim (1820–1879) founded the first institute of pharmacology at the University of Dorpat (Tartu, Estonia) in 1847, ushering in pharmacology as an independent scientific discipline. In addition to a description of effects, he strove to explain the chemical properties of drugs. “The science of medicines is a theoretical, i.e., explanatory, one. It is to provide us with knowledge by which our judgement about the utility of medicines can be validated at the bedside.”
Consolidation – General Recognition
Oswald Schmiedeberg (1838–1921), together with his many disciples (12 of whom were appointed to chairs of pharmacology), helped to establish the high reputation of pharmacology. Fundamental concepts such as structure-activity relationship, drug receptor, and selective toxicity emerged from the work of, respectively, T. Frazer (1841– 1921) in Scotland, J. Langley (1852– 1925) in England, and P. Ehrlich (1854–1915) in Germany. Alexander J. Clark (1885–1941) in England first formalized receptor theory in the early 1920s by applying the Law of Mass Action to drug-receptor interactions. Together with the internist, Bernhard Naunyn (1839–1925), Schmiedeberg founded the first journal of pharmacology, which has since been published without interruption. The “Father of American Pharmacology”, John J. Abel (1857–1938) was among the first Americans to train in Schmiedeberg‘s laboratory and was founder of the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (published from 1909 until the present).
After 1920, pharmacological laboratories sprang up in the pharmaceutical industry, outside established university institutes. After 1960, departments of clinical pharmacology were set up at many universities and in industry.