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Chemistry First
09-27-2005
by Randall C. Willis  |  Email the author
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Recently, I have had the pleasure of reading a new text book by Dr. Walter Sneader, a professor in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. From the title of Sneader's book, Drug Discovery: A History (ISBN 0-471-89979-8), it is pretty easy to determine what he is describing, but where this book differs from many others of similar ilk is that it tells the story of discovery from the earliest moments of human civilization rather than just the last century or so.
 
It is a narrative that describes the people and events surrounding the discoveries, viewing drugs as products developed by chemists and clinicians not companies. In that respect, it was good to be able to think of drug discovery as just that: the identification and exploration of new chemical entities in terms of their abilities to ameliorate the human condition, seeing the compounds in all their chemical glories. This isn't a discussion about marketing, costing structures, regulatory issues, or analytical instrumentation. It is a story of people. It is a story of chemistry. It is a story of exploration.
 
And yet, for all its chemical language, Drug Discovery: A History is very readable. Sneader speaks plainly for the most part and weaves a wonderful narrative, dropping comments or snippets of information throughout that may not show up again for another 30 or 40 pages, linking seemingly vast stretches in space and time. Without adding hyperbole, Sneader captures the excitement and turmoil of the moments in time and the reader gets caught up in the interpersonal battles that would sometimes crop up between former colleagues working to a common goal.
 
Would I recommend that you slide this into the holiday stocking of your favorite Stephen King fan? No. But for educated friends and family who are interested in a social history of healthcare and science, this book is worth examining. For anyone who actually works in the pharmaceutical industry (and to a lesser extent the general chemical industry), this book is an absolute must, for it is important for each of us to remember where we came from and what the original goal of drug discovery was. This is our Age of Exploration and too often, we are getting bogged down in the details of day-to-day living.

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