The Altruistic Beginnings of Big Pharma

The Altruistic Beginnings of Big Pharma
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The pharmaceutical industry undoubtedly ranks near the top of the world's most vilified businesses. Earning a combined $1 trillion in revenue, companies like Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Roche, Novartis, and countless others are easy targets of populist outrage.

Some of it, of course, is warranted. Various companies have been found guilty of fraud under the False Claims Act. Most notably, in 2012, GlaxoSmithKline was ordered to pay $3 billion for failing to report safety data, bribing doctors, and promoting medicines for unlicensed uses. According to numerous reports, these unsavory acts are widespread throughout the industry.

If Edward Robinson Squibb, the pioneering medical inventory who founded and lent his name to pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb, were aware of this unscrupulous situation, he would not be impressed. Squibb died more than a century ago, but he should serve as a role model for the pharmaceutical industry today.

As a young student at Philadelphia's Jefferson Medical College in the 1840s, Squibb became enraptured with the seemingly magical skills of early surgeons, particularly those of his professor: Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter. Squibb watched in awe as Mütter repaired all manner of maladies, despite being handcuffed by inconsistent means of inducing anesthesia. Many times, Mütter would be forced to perform complicated operations on patients who were wide awake, making each surgery a delicate dance between subject and physician. Squibb resolved to remove that handicap.

"His vision was to provide doctors and surgeons with stable, constant chemicals for their work, and thereby make ether surgeries safer, more popular, and even more widely accepted," Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz wrote in her book Dr. Mütter's Marvels.

Squibb labored for long hours in isolation to both concoct a perfect ether compound to induce anesthesia and create a consistent way to manufacture it. In 1854, after years of work, he finally succeeded, crafting a still that used steam to produce a uniform ether gas. The discovery was guaranteed be a goldmine, but Squibb gave it all away for free.

"Instead of rushing to patent either the process or the still -- both of which were conceived, created, tested, and perfected by Squibb alone -- he gave them to the world for free, publishing an article on the apparatus, including a detailed diagram of the design, in the American Journal of Pharmacy," Aptowicz wrote.

Four years later, Squibb founded the company that would become Bristol-Myers Squibb. But though he was now able to profit from his efforts, Squibb did not lose his altruistic mentality.

"Through his company and through his personal work, Squibb would become an advocate for transparency between patient and health-care provider and between doctor and medicine supplier," Aptowicz recounted. "He was instrumental in launching the movement that produced... the first of a series of consumer protection laws that, among other things, required drugs to be labeled with their active ingredients..."

While many today would undoubtedly agree that the pharmaceutical industry has strayed from Squibb's salubrious ideals, the reality isn't so cut and dry. The modern pharmaceutical industry owes much of its maligned reputation to system and circumstance. Game changing advances that occurred regularly decades ago are today not so readily attained. Breakthrough treatments of the past have essentially eliminated a number of medical conditions, leaving fewer, and more difficult, health problems to tackle. Yet the economic pressures from outside investors remain as strong as ever. This leads pharmaceutical executives to inflate prices and disguise slightly tweaked drugs as innovative new products.

Moreover, pharmaceuticals are a high-risk industry. New drugs cost billions of dollars to research and produce, with no guarantee that they will survive the FDA's rigorous review process. However, critics reasonably counter that average pharmaceutical company profits remain extremely high.

We cannot expect the modern pharmaceutical industry to completely emulate the altruism of its long-dead forefather, but one would hope that the executives behind Big Pharma could learn a thing or two from Squibb's honorable example.  

(Image: Rept0n1x / Wikimedia Commons)

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