A history of significant drugs and their evolutions.
Despite the title, the book contains 10 isolated chapters recounting the history of a score of important drugs. Readers will not miss the absence of an overarching theme because the stories are skillfully told and entirely entertaining. An award-winning writer on science and medicine, Hager (The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery that Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler, 2008, etc.) devotes significant space to “the most important drug humans have ever found”: opium. “Dried and eaten or smoked,” writes the author, “it was early man’s strongest, most soothing medicine. Today it is among the most controversial.” Discovered in prehistoric times, it spread across the world. Its addictive property was no secret but considered only a modest drawback because, unlike alcohol, users of opium were rarely violent. By the end of the 19th century, its refined versions—morphine and, later, heroin—produced an addiction epidemic, the beginning of moral disapproval, and increasingly aggressive but ineffectual government efforts to suppress opiate misuse. The history of vaccines, mostly the story of smallpox eradication, is so satisfying that it deserves its chapter. Hager follows with exciting stories of discovery with an international reach—antibiotics in Germany, antipsychotics in France, cholesterol-lowering drugs in Japan—and plenty of unknown geniuses. Though not a muckraker, the author is no fan of drug companies, and he admits that new drugs are greeted with too much enthusiasm, unpleasant side effects invariably appear, and the juiciest pharmaceutical “low-hanging fruit” was plucked during a golden age that ended 50 years ago. New antibiotics cost at least 1,000 times more than old ones. Nowadays, lifesaving drugs attract less attention than those that improve the quality of life—e.g., Viagra, Botox, contraceptives, and tranquilizers.
An expert, mostly feel-good book about modern medicine.