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  • Writer's pictureMichael Goettler

Book Review: Ten Drugs by Thomas Hager


Packing my suitcase for a long-awaited summer vacation and thinking about which books to bring along, reminded me of a book that I first came across four years ago: Ten Drugs by Thomas Hager. This book had such a profound impact on me that I find myself being drawn back to it time and again.

Substances that have shaped the course of human history

Life-altering and life-saving drugs from the 20th and early 21st centuries have had profound influences on human history, emptying mental hospitals, increasing life expectancy, and enabling women to have reproductive freedom.

In Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine, veteran science and health writer Thomas Hager explores the history of medicine through the lens of ten specific drugs, each picked for its “historical importance plus its entertainment value.” These drugs have had a profound impact on health and well-being, social dynamics, and history.

Hager delves into the stories behind substances like opium, quinine, marijuana, and cocaine, as well as lesser-known drugs such as chloral hydrate and digitalis. Highlighting their origins, uses, and effects, he describes the intricate ways in which they have influenced medical practices and human behavior.

The book has opioids as a central theme, tracing their history from opium cultivation thousands of years ago to the modern-day opioid crisis. While opioids do kill pain, he notes, they’re also horrifyingly addictive. He highlights the historical parallels between present-day opioid addiction and the morphine epidemic a century ago. “Opioid overdoses,” Hager writes, “kill more Americans than car accidents and gun homicides put together.”

One chapter covers chlorpromazine, a drug that took America by storm in the 1950s. The first drug treatment for a mental illness awakened catatonic mental patients but presented challenges as they re-entered society. He also discusses the rise of pharmaceutical companies, acknowledging both the positive contributions and negative aspects of the industry.

The beauty of Hager’s writing is his ability to blend scientific information with storytelling, making this a worthwhile summer read about the history of pharmaceuticals. As he concludes, “No drug is good. No drug is bad. Every drug is both.”

This book is one of my all-time favorites and I recommend it to anyone who still hasn’t decided on their summer reading list, especially if you’re interested in medicine or healthcare.


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