The Drug Industry’s Aggressive Reputation Began with Pfizer in the 1950s and 1960s

Dr Vernon Coleman

The following article is taken from `The Medicine Men’ by Vernon Coleman, first published in 1975 but now available again.

`During the postwar years millions of pounds were spent on developing new and more effective antibiotics. In 1955 Beecham began to study penicillin and started to look for a penicillin which could be given orally and which would have a wider range of activity than the penicillins already available. Their research proved more fruitful than they could have hoped for. In 1957 Beecham scientists isolated the nucleus of the penicillin molecule and they had at their fingertips a whole new range of drugs. In 1959 they made their first semi­ synthetic penicillin.

One of the American companies which had helped with the production of penicillin during the war was Pfizer, a chemical company which also discovered the extremely useful antibiotic oxytetracycline.

At the time of this discovery, Pfizer did not themselves market drugs but as a result of this success they decided to do so; they spent an estimated half-a-million dollars in two months on promoting their new drug. In two years in the early 1950s they spent seven-and-a-half million dollars on advertising, using telegrams, telephone calls to doctors, direct mail shots and hospital displays. It was the first time a company had used ordinary commercial methods to sell a drug to doctors. By 1951 Pfizer had three hundred representatives, or 'detail men', and their brand had a quarter of the broad spectrum antibiotic market, which showed that their techniques had paid off.

Pfizer raised the level of competition in the drug industry and grew rapidly. Their aggressive methods have certainly brought them success but they have also brought controversy. In 1961 the British Minister of Health, Enoch Powell, decided that Pfizer were charging too much for their tetracycline, and he took the unusual step of invoking the Patents Act and importing antibiotics from Italy where there are no patents on drugs. A good deal of bitterness followed these affairs and the drug industry's evil image seems to date from this era.’


The article above is taken from `The Medicine Men’ by Vernon Coleman. You can purchase a copy of the reprinted paperback edition through the Bookshop on

Copyright Vernon Coleman February 2024