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Delivering Drugs Through History

From clay lozenges to the first drug-eluting coronary stent, drug delivery methods have evolved through history.

By Anita Slomski // Fall 2009

500 B.C.

On the Mediterranean island of Lemnos, hand-shaped clay lozenges were prescribed for a variety of conditions.

sir christopher wren



British polymath Sir Christopher Wren used a quill attached to a small bladder to inject dogs with opium, then experimented on humans.

drug delivery, illustration showing the result of subcutaneous injection

Wellcome Library, London


French physicians implanted pellets of morphine and other drugs beneath the skin with darning needles.


British inventor William Brockedon received a patent for manufacturing pills by placing dry medicinal ingredients in a die and hammering the powder into a tablet.

drug delivery, hypodermic syringe

Wellcome Library, London


Edinburgh physician Alexander Wood published the first paper on subcutaneous injection of drugs using a hypodermic syringe with plungers made of leather or asbestos.

Early 1950s

Pharmacist Howard Press created the first time-release drug—Nitroglyn—for patients with angina. Multiple coatings on drug pellets placed in a capsule dissolved at different rates, keeping a concentration of the drug in the body longer.

cluster of liposomes, drug delivery

Annie Cavanaugh, Wellcome Images


Tiny lipid bubbles called liposomes were first proposed as drug carriers; researchers surmised that they would slip more easily through tumors’ leaky vessels and into cancerous tissue to deliver their payload.


The first transdermal patch contained an anti-motion-sickness drug that was absorbed by the skin directly into the circulation, bypassing the liver’s filter.


Engineer Robert Langer developed a device using polymers that, once implanted in the brain, slowly released drugs to kill cancer cells without toxicity to the rest of the body.

norplant, drug delivery

Mark Peterson/Corbis


Birth-control device Norplant was introduced. Implanted under the skin, it consists of six silicone rubber tubes that release a continuous dose of the hormone levonorgestrel.

metal stent, drug delivery

© Collection CNRI / Phototake, Inc.


The first drug-eluting coronary stent, which slowly releases a medication to keep coronary arteries open after angioplasty, was approved by the FDA.


Special Delivery

drug delivery

From three-stage nanorockets to remote-controlled pills, today’s drug delivery marvels transport payloads where nothing else can go.

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