Book Review — Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine

Book Review — Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine

Book Author - Thomas Hager

It’s amazing what we have achieved with modern medicine from immunotherapy for cancer to a cure for over 90% of Hepatitis C patients. The past two decades, especially, have just been amazing with the changes and advancements in how healthcare providers take care of their patients. But, how did we get here? It wasn’t that long ago that people were dying of things like smallpox, infected cuts, and diarrhea.

I recently read the book Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine by Thomas Hager. A colleague of mine recommended it for me, and I realized after reading the synopsis, it’d be right up my alley (I’ve been on a kick of non-fiction medical books lately). Having been published earlier this year, I figured the info would be as up to date as possible. So, I paid a visit to my local library and dived right into it. 

I have to say, what stood out to me immediately was the author’s engaging tone. The author comes right out and says he’s not a healthcare professional, but even if he hadn’t, it is very clear from the get-go that he wrote this for the average reader who has a small amount of clinical knowledge. While I didn’t mind seeing definitions for simple medical terminology, it could be a little boring for healthcare professionals. Knowing this from the introduction, though, I knew not to expect much talk of mechanisms of action or pharmacology, and that was okay with me.

As many medical books are right now, his first focus is on opioids, starting with how opium came to be and how it developed into what we see in use today. I was expecting the chapter to end with a scolding of the pharmaceutical industry pushing oxycodone and creating an opioid epidemic. It was nice not to read that for once, actually. Throughout the book, he generally tried to stay away from talking down about “Big Pharma”. I appreciated that his focus was more on the history of the substances and not the political points surrounding them.

As he goes through things such as the history of vaccines, statins, and biologics, he really did a great job of reporting of the earliest foundations of the drug in question. Many of the substances he discusses go back much further than the people who were credited for its discovery. Did you know the practice of inoculation actually started in the Middle East? How about that the first statin compound was actually discovered in Japan, but its research was halted because it seemed too dangerous? These are the sorts of really neat oddities Hager writes about.

I did, however, find a few faults throughout the book. Most were inconsequential and would really only be noticed by medical professionals. The one that stuck out to me most was in the chapter on vaccines. Hager was trying to weed through the current anti-vaccination propaganda and encourage people to vaccinate for things like polio and measles, but in doing so, he downplays the severity of things like influenza and shingles. He also mentions a vaccine for herpes being available [aside from Shingles], which just isn’t true. One single paragraph could definitely influence readers not to get their annual flu shot, and that’s just not okay.

Another thing that sort of turned me off a bit was his chapter on statins. While he did delve into the history of their discovery and growth, he spent a huge chunk of it talking about his personal experience and why he decided against taking one. While I thought he actually did a pretty good job of wading through the data and recommendations (which keep changing), his attitude during this chapter could definitely cause readers with less medical knowledge to stop taking their medications. He also brought up his decision not to take statins several more times in the subsequent chapters, which just came off as him being personally annoyed that his doctor recommended he take a medication.

Overall, I did enjoy reading this. I would recommend it be read by pharmacy students, actually. It gives some interesting background on some of the most ground-breaking discoveries in the field of medicine and would make for interesting discussion points about the validity and accuracy of his statements. While I think non-fiction fans would enjoy this, I’d be careful when suggesting it to people. Those who already have a fear or distrust of medicines would come out on the other side of this book with adherence problems (and not the kind we can fix with smart pill boxes).

Overall Rating: 3.5/5