Popular Science Monthly/Volume 66/January 1905/The United States Pharmacopeia

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By H. C. WOOD, M.D., LL.D.,


UNDERLYING our civilization, and often very necessary to our daily life, are agencies unrecognized by the general mass of humanity. Among these is a little book known as the 'United States Pharmacopœia' It concerns most nearly the medical profession, but perhaps most vitally the general public. Probably four doctors out of five have no clear, correct conception of the Pharmacopoeia, its intent and scope; whilst the ordinary citizen does not know of its existence. I have thought perhaps a short article concerning it might not be uninteresting to the readers of the The Popular Science Monthly, and the concurrence of the editor in this belief has led to the present dictation.

The Pharmacopœia is an official standard list of drugs, in which is given so much of their natural history as may be necessary to enable the apothecary to judge of the genuineness and purity of an offered sample, and in which is also given a list of the proper preparations for use of these drugs, with the methods of the making of these preparations. The intent of the Pharmacopoeia is to insure genuineness and purity, proper methods of preparing, and uniformity of strength in the preparations. A common, fallacious belief is that Pharmacopœial recognition means that the drug recognized is of value; the fact is that the United States and other Pharmacopoeias have in them numerous drugs of very little use. The nature or motif, so to speak, of a pharmacopœia is not to distinguish between worthy and worthless drugs, but to see that a drug which is asked for is as sold by the apothecary pure, and that proper preparations of uniform strength are made by the apothecary.

The question which the framers of a pharmacopœia ask themselves, is not is this drug of value, but is there a demand for it by the profession of medicine? If five thousand doctors in the United States believed brick-dust to be a valuable remedy, and habitually used it, brick-dust would have to go into the pharmacopœia. Witch-hazel is probably as active and as useful as is brick-dust, but witch-hazel is a fad, and is enormously called for, and so witch-hazel must go into the pharmacopœia. The pharmacopœia exists for the purpose of requiring the apothecary to give in the first place pure brick-dust or pure witch-hazel when asked for; and in the second place uniform preparations of these remedies.

Every European country has its own pharmacopœia, prepared by governmental officials; or, in the case of England, by a board especially authorized by the government. One of the peculiarities of Anglo-Saxon civilization is the performance by volunteer bodies under sanction of law of functions which are really governmental. Witness the Brethren of the Trinity, who control and manage the lighthouses of England; witness, also, the United States Pharmacopœial Convention, an incorporated society, which controls the United States Pharmacopœia. Little by little, now in customs regulations, now in pure food bills, now in this, now in that form, without any definite prearranged specific legislation, the United States Pharmacopœia has come to have the force of law in the United States. In the Latin countries the result of such a method would probably be bad; in the Anglo-Saxon lands with the habit of submission of the individual to the majority, the present method has been successful, and probably more successful than direct governmental rule would have been. The United States Pharmacopœia scientifically and practically ranks with any in the world, and obedience to its mandates in pharmacy and in medicine is universal.

The first attempt to make a pharmacopœia in the United States was in 1820; the result was not fortunate, but in 1830 a second edition was prepared which commanded the respect of the profession and was generally accepted. Before this period, if a doctor wrote for a tincture he would get it in one strength in Philadelphia, another strength in New York; or, perchance, the apothecary on the right side of Broadway would give him one strength of preparation, whilst his rival on the other side of the street would put up an entirely different article. What was formerly nationally true is now true internationally. A prescription written in New York for a certain much used poisonous remedy would be put up three times the desired strength in Montreal, where the British Pharmacopœia is in vogue. Arsenical preparations having the same name vary in strength from 1 in 10,000 to 2 per cent., according to the national standard in accordance with which they have been made. The growing freedom of intercourse among nations has made this situation intolerable, and various efforts have been put forth to correct the evil. At last the Belgian government, by summoning the International Conference for the Unification of the Formulas of Heroic Medicines, at Brussels, apparently solved the difficulty. In this conference, which was official and diplomatic in nature, each government of the civilized world was represented by a physician and a chemist or pharmacist and after much talk standards of strength were finally agreed upon for all very potent drugs, and pledges were made by most governments that the National Pharmacopœias should be made to conform. The new United States Pharmacopœia is on the eve of printing; the Committee of Revision has adopted the results of the Brussels conference, and it will be the first National Pharmacopœia of International scope.