The Era of Science:
The Beginnings | Isolation of Active Ingredients | Synthesis
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The first written records of drug formulas that include plants appear on ancient Sumerian clay tablets, made about 4,000 years ago, while Egyptian papyri followed soon after with drugs as widely different as castor oil and cannabis, still with us today. In spite of some major rational/empirical elements in the medico-pharmaceutical records of both those cultures, we still find from time to time a heavy overlay of religion or the supernatural, reminiscent of earlier societies.
Replica of a Sumerian clay tablet © Ontario Heritage Foundation
The ancient Greeks were the first to apply simple science to the pharmaco-medical arts, basically by stressing preservation, classification, the rejection of superstition, and the use of hypothesis as a method of reasoning. They identified and tested medications from plants primarily by organoleptic means.
Compare these drawings of the same plant, made about 300 years apart.
© Missouri Botanical Garden
From about 1500 A.D., new theories about drug therapy were based increasingly on scientific evidence. As the science of botany advanced, illustrations in herbals became more detailed and precise, making accurate identification of medicinal plants easier.
By the late 1700s and early 1800s, pharmacists, especially in France and Germany, began to investigate the chemical composition of plants. The Swedish pharmacist/chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele isolated several chemical compounds from plants, including, in 1784, citric acid from lemon juice. His methods helped those who followed to isolate medicinally active plant compounds.