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This month in 1884: How 'friable' pills changed medicine delivery

This month in 1884: Dr William Upjohn files key structural patent for revolutionary pill design
this month in 1884: Friable pills

Think of major developments in the history of medicine, and the mind immediately turns to those great advances in products that can prevent, target and treat diseases in a variety of chemical and biological methods.

One area that shouldn't be overlooked is the method of administration for how these treatments get into the body, be it pill, tablet, subcutaneous injection or intravenous drip.

As powerful as a medicine might be, it would have no effect if it wasn't able to reach the right part of patient. And that's not to mention the need to create a therapy that offers patient convenience and suitability of containment/transport at standard temperatures.

One of the most important advances in the field came around the birth of modern medicine in the late 19th century, when people were just beginning to wake up to the notion of commercial medicinal products, but had not quite come up with a great method for manufacturing medicines at scale or making sure the treatment did the job once in a patient's body.

Before the advent of pills, solid medicines generally came in powdered form, which did not prove the most convenient form of substance, for patient, pharmacist or manufacturer.

A method of compressing these powdered medicines into solid pills was then developed, but many of these drugs had hard coatings that did not dissolve in the stomach and just passed through a patient's system, leaving them without any of the effects that even those limited treatments at the time could provide. 

It wasn't until 1884 that a viable alternative was proposed in the form of Dr William Upjohn's 'friable' pills, medicines that could dissolve in the stomach, releasing the active ingredient into the bloodstream and letting patients feel their effects.

Upjohn was born in the town of Richland in Michigan, US, growing up to study medicine at the University of Michigan. He then practiced as a doctor in Hastings, Michigan, for ten years, during which time he began experimenting with different designs for medicines as a reaction to the poor crop of current options.

One of these designs was the friable pill, which Upjohn designed in a way that was able to compress the powdered medicine to create a stable pill that could nevertheless be crushed by a thumb and was easily dissolvable.

It took several years to perfect, but on October 14, 1884 at the age of 32, Upjohn filed a patent application for this new pill structure.

The patent describes a process of moistening, spraying and rolling the ingredients of the pill in a pan “until the pills have grown to the desired size”.

It adds: “By this process the manufacture of pills is greatly facilitated, the product cheapened, and the medicinal efficacy increased, the pills being less compact, and hence more soluble, and capable of being easily crushed and powdered for contingent uses.”

The patent was granted in February 1885 marking a breakthrough in drug design, while Upjohn also completed work on a machine to mass-produce pills in this method.
The next stage was letting the world know about this new method for pill making, and according to the public library of his father's hometown in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Upjohn was a natural, sending pine boards to thousands of physicians along with samples of both his own friable pills and traditional hard pills.

Doctors were then encouraged to hammer the pills into the board to see for themselves how easily the friable pill could be crushed.

As business grew and more people heard about this innovation, Upjohn and his brother Henry founded The Upjohn Pill and Granule Company in 1886 in Kalamazoo.

The business - complete with a logo that featured a thumb crushing a pill - continued to expand and two more of Upjohn's brothers joined, leading the company as it created pills and tablets for various medicine developers.

The 20th century saw even greater expansion, including advances in the production of cortisone, until 1995 when the company merged with Pharmacia AB to form Pharmacia & Upjohn.

This new company then merged with Monsanto and Searle to become Pharmacia, before spinning off Monsanto as an independent agricultural business in 2002. A year later, Phamarcia and the Upjohn heritage was taken over by Pfizer in a multibillion dollar deal.

As for William Upjohn, he served as president at the company he created for 40 years, although also found time to involve himself with local politics in Kalamazoo, being elected the town's mayor in 1918 and supporting the construction of hospitals, churches and leisure facilities.

He died in 1932, after which his nephew Lawrence assumed management of the Upjohn Company, continuing to expand the reach of a medical innovation that allowed for mass production of drugs that actually worked and the modern pharmaceutical industry that followed.

Article by
Thomas Meek

PMGroup editor

21st October 2013

From: Research

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