Great drugs of the 20th century – Paracetamol, 1946.


First introduced into clinical practice in 1886 by German physician Josef von Mering, paracetamol proved to be an effective pain killer. However, further research studies by von Mering indicated that paracetamol could cause a blood disorder and was potentially harmful. Following a research paper by von Mering in 1893 on its alleged side-effects, paracetamol was discontinued.

For many years after, paracetamol was a forgotten drug.

In 1946, the Institute for the Study of Analgesic and Sedative Drugs asked the Laboratory of Industrial Hygiene at New York City’s Department of Health to study blood problems caused by non-aspirin pain-killers.

axelrod_postcard (1)
Julius Axelrod. Note the eye patch – caused by a lab accident.

Two biochemists, Julius Axelrod and his mentor Bernard Brodie, conducted this study and finally identified the culprit as the painkiller acetanilide. Axelrod and Brodie advised manufacturers to discard acetanilide and instead use von Mering’s forgotten analgesic – paracetamol.

Bernard Brodie

Brodie and Axelrod discovered that the side-effects of paracetamol that von Mering had noted in 1893 were probably caused by an impurity in the paracetamol, rather than paracetamol itself.

Pure paracetamol, when used in the prescribed dose, is actually a safe drug.

Paracetamol, better known in the US as Acetaminophen, was first marketed in 1955 by McNeil Laboratories under the most popular analgesic brand name in history – Tylenol.

Paracetamol, like aspirin, relieves pain by inhibiting prostaglandins, biochemicals locally released by the body at pain sites. It is also a potent antipyretic – or anti-fever drug.

However, paracetamol does not reduce inflammation, and is not considered an anti-inflammatory drug (unlike aspirin).

Julius Axelrod took his Nobel in 1970. He didn’t get it for paracetamol, but the drug was his first love – “It was my first taste of real research … and I loved it !” he wrote.

Next time you take a Crocin or a Metacin for your aches and pains, do not forget to thank Julius Axelrod and Bernard Brodie!

To be continued …


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