Throwback Thursday- Brief History of Medication in America

Published on 27 March 2014

From the founding of the United States up until the early 20th century, people were free to sell herbs and drugs to anyone they wished with virtually no regulation. In the 19th century a proliferation of patent medicines or proprietary herbal concoctions often containing alcohol and/or opiates were sold to the public without regulation. In fact, Sears used to sell a patent medicine containing opium through its popular mail order catalogues during the 19th century.

The original formula for Coca-Cola developed by pharmacist John Pembertoncontained small amounts of cocaine. It was not until the early 20th century that the dangers of patent drugs came to the public’s attention, resulting in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Narcotics were severely restricted and made illegal without a prescription by the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. The Volstead Act of 1922, the 18th Amendment, restricted alcohol to prescription only status until it was repealed in the early 1930’s. The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 closed many of the loopholes contained in the earlier legislation. 

The Durham-Humphrey Amendment of 1951 clearly defined the status of prescription versus non-prescription medication. Medication safety concerns were later addressed by the Kefauver-Harris Drug Amendments of 1962. The development and growth of the FDA has also impacted which medications can go to market. 

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