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A History of the Medicines We Take (Paperback)

From Ancient Times to Present Day

P&S History

By N. Anthony Armstrong, Anthony C. Cartwright
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 336
Illustrations: 32 black and white
ISBN: 9781526724038
Published: 15th May 2020
Last Released: 7th July 2021



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A History of the Medicines We Take gives a lively account of the development of medicines from traces of herbs found with the remains of Neanderthal man, to prescriptions written on clay tablets from Mesopotamia in the third millennium BC, to pure drugs extracted from plants in the nineteenth century to the latest biotechnology antibody products.

The first ten chapters of the book in part one give an account of the development of the active drugs from herbs used in early medicine, many of which are still in use, to the synthetic chemical drugs and modern biotechnology products. The remaining eight chapters in part two tell the story of the developments in the preparations that patients take and their inventors, such as Christopher Wren, who gave the first intravenous injection in 1656, and William Brockedon who invented the tablet in 1843. The book traces the changes in patterns of prescribing from simple dosage forms, such as liquid mixtures, pills, ointments, lotions, poultices, powders for treating wounds, inhalations, eye drops, enemas, pessaries and suppositories mentioned in the Egyptian Ebers papyrus of 1550 BCE to the complex tablets, injections and inhalers in current use. Today nearly three-quarters of medicines dispensed to patients are tablets and capsules. A typical pharmacy now dispenses about as many prescriptions in a working day as a mid-nineteenth- century chemist did in a whole year.

Medicines and herbal remedies often figure in historical novels but usually the description is tantalisingly vague, collections of unspecified herbs that happen to be conveniently available. This book first of all takes the reader right through the history of medicines from prehistory to the present day, telling me much that I did not know about modern medicines, and then goes on to give a history of 'dosage forms', describing how the medicines were administered (pills, tablets, injections, pessaries, etc.).

Edward James - Historical Novels Review

'...a wealth of information drawn from a wide variety of sources which will be new to even well-informed pharmaceutical historians.'

Stuart Anderson, editor of the Pharmaceutical Historian

This was a really fascinating read for me! I always wanted to study the history of medicine but my school didn't offer the subject as a unit. Luckily, this book came along so i was able to learn a little of what i missed out on.
The book is quite dense but also easy to read and understand, i would recommend for history buffs and those who don't have much background knowledge - it can cater to all.

NetGalley, Catherine Spearey

A History of the Medicines We Take by Anthony Armstrong, Anthony Cartwright* – From Ancient Times to Present Day – was great! I liked very much how the book started (cats and catnip) and how it was structured too. The first part of the book deals with the development of the drugs in early medicine to the drugs we use today, mostly synthetic chemicals. The second part of the book deals with dosage forms, from pills to inhalations, enemas to pessaries and suppositories.

5 stars

Read the full review here

Coffee and Books

...lively account...

American Herb Association Quarterly

The authors clearly know their subject. I now understand why so many of my antecedents died from illnesses that have long since been eradicated or conquered.

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Lost Cousins

As featured by

Harpenden Now, 1st July 2020

Again, at a time when chemists all over the world are attempting to develop a vaccine for Covid 19, this is a superb examination of the history of the medicines in use from the earliest times to the present day.

Books Monthly

This is a very well written book but it’s not overly formal and high-brow, I would think that most readers would get along quite well with this book. The two authors of this book are clearly experts in their fields which comes across in the book so you can easily believe the knowledge. It kept me amused in a number of parts and was an easy read, the tables and facts in the book are excellent and add and assurance to the book. The book also doesn’t get to silly either in its history, in that it’s not full of bugs, worms, leeches and gross stuff, it strikes the right balance between serious and too jokey. It also made a nice difference to me to read a softcover book as most books that I read are hardbacks. I would fully recommend this book and I think it would be ideal for students in medicine to help give them a bit of knowledge in the background of medicine.

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UK Historian

I’m fascinated by medical history so when I saw this I knew I had to read it.
Really interesting and accessible, do not envy having to type out the long names of the medicines and I also thank god we have progressed so much with medication and treatment.

NetGalley, Sara Marsden

"A History of the Medicines We Take" by N. Anthony Armstrong & Anthony C. Cartwright is one hell of a book. Prescriptions, using the herbs to medicate, and modern biotechnology are such fascinating topics to me. I work in a pharmacy, and seeing the birth of most of the medicine I see almost every day and how they were developed during the centuries gave me a new perspective on the subject. I'm also a history nerd, so I feel like this book was written for me specifically. What I liked about it is that it gives the reader EXACTLY what promises in the title. I read so many books lately where "History of" didn't mean anything. This book covers THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF MEDICINE from prehistory to recent times. And, wait for it, it's not only about western medicine but also Asian and Arabic. Are you crying yet? Because I cried a little bit. I was so freaking happy. My favorite bits were obviously the parts about Ancient times, specifically Egyptian, Greek, Arabian and Roman medicine. The book is comprehensive, fascinating, and undoubtedly well-researched. Some bits made me laugh for days. If you love medicine and you love history and all the little facts, this book was written for you.

NetGalley, Rina Di Raimo

From ancient historical records to animal and plant ingredients, and straight to today's achievements, A History of the Medicines We Take lays before us answers to all questions we might possibly ask about the history, nature, and facts of the medicine humanity uses. This book got highly technical at points, but it was definitely interesting to read. And if your profession or hobbies revolve around medicine, then this is definitely for you.

NetGalley, Ioanna Tatari

If you are interested in medicinal knowledge, it's a good read.

NetGalley, Reece Einfeld

Circling around Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Middle East, into the UK, then around the world before zipping back and forth through time to define terms and find examples in a way that’s meant for a middle-school textbook about foods and plants as medicine, the origin of how we think about infection and contamination, measuring medication, and forming treatments.

NetGalley, Kristine Fisher

An extremely detailed history of medicine, herbal supplements, dental health, and more. Very interesting for the curious-minded individual. Anyone in the medical field will find this answering questions they didn’t know they had. Curious little tidbits that are actually good conversation starters as well as for discussion with other medical professionals. For example, a patient bringing up the history of toothpaste to her dentist. Also good for midwives and health practitioners and herbalists.

NetGalley, Mary Antzak

Firstly, I’m neither a pharmacist nor a physician: I am simply a layman and thus unqualified to judge the accuracy of the contents of A History of the Medicines We Take. I wanted to read the book because of a general interest in history and what goes into my body.

The book is fascinating. Part One runs through a history of medicines from prehistoric times to the latest biotechnology, showing that the understanding of drugs and their effect is constantly progressing. Part Two demonstrates the same progression of improvement in how those drugs can be administered, e.g. via by mouth, by injection, patches, etc..

The book shows how pharmacy started with individuals who would note what plants were beneficial for certain conditions; how pharmacists would make up tablets and powders by hand; and how the need to deliver medicines to the growing population in British cities and the US resulted in companies like Pfizer and Wellcome.

Dioscorides wrote De Materia Medica in the first century AD and included several uses for willow leaves and bark. We now know that willow contains salicin which breaks down to form salicylic acid. We take that as aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid). However, although there may be sound science behind the use of some ancient remedies, I’m not tempted to try the cure for baldness noted in a papyrus: lion fat, hippopotamus fat, crocodile fat, cat fat, serpent fat and ibex fat.

To reassure you that the book isn’t all about ancient history, it discusses the latest medicine too. The NHS saved £210m in 2017-18 by switching to biosimilars for just three patented drugs.

NetGalley, Colin Edwards

It was an interesting read and I recommend it for anyone interested in the history of science.

NetGalley, Stephen Goldberg

The book covers lots of information about medicines and is well thought out and very well researched.

NetGalley, Hazel Thomson

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Great fun for me! BUT. I am a retired RN who has cared for patients in multiple settings in the US, a history geek, love reading both historical fiction and nonfiction, and learned some very interesting things.

NetGalley, Jen Tangen

A History of the Medicines We Take was an entertaining read in many respects. I certainly learnt a few things along the way, and much of the information was interesting.

NetGalley, Nicki Markus

An interesting, delightful, and well-researched look at the history of medicines we take today. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride through the ages as each time period's contribution was reviewed. I also really enjoyed the history of how the dosing and delivery of medications evolved. I have always been fascinated by the science behind medicines and the sense of exploration the scientists demonstrated in the development of pioneer treatments. Medication development requires calculated risk, creativity, and dedication to progress. Despite the complex nature of medications, this book did a great job of breaking it down into simple to understand segments and tied it all together in a natural progression. While those with medical or pharmacology backgrounds will likely get the most out of the specific, detailed content, lay people will learn a lot and appreciate the complexity of medicine. There are takeaways for all levels of interest and learning.

NetGalley, Brandi Rawlins

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book grabs you from the very first paragraph describing the earliest forms of medicine used leading on to how animals use plants to treat their ailments – zoopharmacognosy. It goes on to describe how humans noticed these behaviours to investigate the plants for their own needs. The description of the archaeology of medicinal plants used by early man is fascinating. Its full of interesting facts and very accessible.

NetGalley, Jenny Dunne

I would recommend this book to students of pharmacology as it helps to put modern day medicine into perspective.

NetGalley, Tanja Flanjak

About N. Anthony Armstrong

Norman Anthony Armstrong is a retired pharmacist who obtained his PhD at London University. After working in the pharmaceutical industry, he joined the Welsh School of Pharmacy, Cardiff University. He retired from there as senior lecturer in pharmaceutical technology. He is a Fellow of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, and the author of over 170 scientific papers, reviews and books. He lives in Hertfordshire with his wife.

About Anthony C. Cartwright

Anthony C. Cartwright is a retired pharmacist, who worked in the pharmaceutical industry, for the UK Medicines Agency, for a contract research company and in his own consultancy. He has written many reviews and research articles, written and co-edited three books on medicines regulation and contributed to four others. He is a Fellow of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. He now writes on the history of medicine and pharmacy. He lives in Surrey with his wife.

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