History of pharmacopoeias

The word pharmacopoeia originates from Greek, φαρμακοποιΐα. Literally, the word means ‘medicine making’ and it refers to a type of book. Such books, originally containing recipes for various medicines, have been used since ancient times. The medicines described often were complex mixtures of substances of herbal or animal origin. City pharmacopoeias were often used, and in Europe one of the earliest examples was the London Pharmacopoeia from 1618 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Nicholas Culpeper, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis; or, The London Dispensatory, Further Adorned by the Studies and Collections of the Fellows now living, of the said College (London, Awnsham and John Churchill, 1695) de Beer Eb 1695 C.

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) was an apothecary tried and declared not guilty for witchcraft in 1642. He was committed to the service of the sick among the poor, powerless, and uneducated. To enable the poor to help themselves, he translated, without permission, the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis from Latin into English. This work belonged to the College of Physicians.

The purpose of pharmacopoeias was to ensure medicines were of a good quality. The books contained individual formulas for medicines, including:

  • The composition of the medicine - what it contained.
  • The preparation method - how to make it.
  • The price of the medicine (in many cases).

National pharmacopoeias gradually replaced city pharmacopoeias, e.g., the British pharmacopoeia (BP). All countries in Europe produced their own national pharmacopoeias.

After World War II a new trend emerged: the internationalisation of the pharmacopoeias. Groups of countries worked together to replace their national pharmacopoeias by a common pharmacopoeia. The first example was the Nordic Pharmacopoeia in 1963, combining the pharmacopoeias of Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. In 1969, the first edition of the European Pharmacopoeia was published.

Since 1952, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has published the International Pharmacopoeia. In the beginning, it included all medicines available and sold globally. Nowadays, the International Pharmacopoeia focuses on:

  • The WHO list of essential medicines.
  • Priority medicines of major public-health importance.