Medical Miracles

National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program

Early medicines were the product of a fortuitous discovery of a plant or microbial extract and hit-or-miss testing of similar compounds to find the most effective version. Today, using the tools of modern chemistry, scientists map the structures of modern medicines, mimic their functions and tailor drugs to individual needs—making medical miracles everyday events.

Carl and Gerty Cori and Carbohydrate Metabolism

Beginning in the 1920s, Carl and Gerty Cori conducted a series of pioneering studies that led to our current understanding of the metabolism of sugars. In brilliant collaboration, the Coris studied how the body metabolizes glucose and advanced the understanding of how the body produces and stores energy. Their findings were particularly useful in the development of treatments for diabetes. Building on their work, others developed improved techniques to control diabetes. In 1947 the Coris shared a Nobel Prize for their discoveries. Learn more.

Development of Diagnostic Test Strips

In 1956, Al and Helen Free, chemists at Miles Laboratories in Elkhart, Indiana, developed Clinistix®, a dip-and-read test for the presence of glucose in urine, an indication of diabetes. Later, the Frees developed strips with multiple tests to measure proteins, pH, bilirubin, and other substances in blood and urine. Today, self-management of a host of diseases—including diabetes as well as other metabolic diseases and kidney and liver conditions—is an easier process because of the development of diagnostic test strips by Alfred and Helen Free and their research team at Miles Laboratories. Learn more.

Discovery and Development of Penicillin

Penicillin, the first effective antibiotic, was famously discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928 almost by accident. The introduction of penicillin in the 1940s, which began the era of antibiotics, has been recognized as one of the greatest advances in therapeutic medicine. The discovery of penicillin and the initial recognition of its therapeutic potential occurred in the United Kingdom, but, due to World War II, the United States played the major role in developing large-scale production of the drug, thus making a life-saving substance in limited supply into a widely available medicine. Learn more.

Discovery of Camptothecin and Taxol

Thousands of lives have been saved by new chemotherapy drugs derived from natural products. Two of these natural products, camptothecin and Taxol®, were first isolated by Monroe Wall and Mansukh Wani at the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina. These natural products kill cancer cells via unique mechanisms of action and in ways scientists had not previously imagined. The work of this research team led to the eventual development and marketing of drugs that have been approved for treatment of ovarian, breast, lung, and colon cancer and Kaposi’s sarcoma. Learn more.

Discovery of Vitamin C by Albert Szent-Györgyi

Humankind has long suffered from a lack of understanding of basic nutrition. Scurvy was among many diseases suffered due to malnutrition. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that Albert Szent-Györgyi (1893-1986) discovered the chemical ascorbic acid—also known as vitamin C—that enables the body to efficiently use carbohydrates, fats, and protein. His discovery was among the foundations of modern nutrition. In later years he and his collaborators achieved world renown in the field of the biochemical mechanism of muscular contraction. From 1948 until his death, he worked in the United States where he was also involved in cancer research. Learn more.

Marker Degradation: Creation of the Mexican Steroid Hormone Industry 1938-1945

Steroid chemists often refer to the 1930s as the Decade of the Sex Hormones, when the molecular structures of certain sex hormones were determined and first introduced to medical practice as drugs. Russell Marker achieved the first practical synthesis of the pregnancy hormone, progesterone, by what now is known as the "Marker Degradation." Produced from starting material in a species of Mexican yam, Marker’s progesterone eventually became the preferred precursor in the industrial preparation of the anti-inflammatory drug cortisone. Important research on sex hormones continued in Mexico, leading to the synthesis of the first useful oral contraceptive in 1951. Learn more.

Percy Julian: Synthesis of Physostigmine

Millions of people owe their sight to Percy Julian, the African American chemist who transcended racial bias to revolutionize the treatment of glaucoma. Born in Alabama in 1899, Julian was barred from the local public school's college preparatory program because of his race. Nonetheless, he excelled academically, and in 1935 he synthesized physostigmine, a natural substance used to reduce pressure in the eyeball caused by glaucoma, which can lead to blindness. The feat cut the cost of significantly, making treatment widely available and earning Julian worldwide acclaim. Learn more.

Selman Waksman and Antibiotics

Waksman and his students, in their laboratory at Rutgers University, established the first screening protocols to detect antimicrobial agents produced by microorganisms. This deliberate search for chemotherapeutic agents contrasts with the discovery of penicillin, which came through a chance observation by Alexander Fleming, who noted that a mold contaminant on a Petri dish culture had inhibited the growth of a bacterial pathogen. During the 1940s, Waksman and his students isolated more than fifteen antibiotics, the most famous of which was streptomycin, the first effective treatment for tuberculosis. Learn more.

Tagamet®: Discovery of Histamine H2-Receptor Antagonists

Cimetidine, better known as Tagamet®, opened a new chapter in drug development. Introduced in 1976 as a treatment for stomach ulcers—then a potentially life-threatening condition—cimetidine was the product of a logical and methodical search. Researchers at SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals (now GlaxoSmithKline) identified the molecule that triggers the release of gastric acid when it binds to a receptor in the lining of the stomach. After a decade-long search, the researchers achieved their goal with cimetidine. It represented a new class of drugs and a new approach to developing them. Learn more.