Celebrating 150 years of UK standards for drugs

Looking back at 150 years of one of the best known drug reference works.

‘The British pharmacopoeia, 1864 to 2014: medicines, international standards and the state’, by Anthony C. Cartwright

For 150 years, the British Pharmacopoeia has set out the UK’s official standards for medicinal substances. Its sesquicentenary is celebrated in this book by Tony Cartwright, a regulatory consultant who has had a long association with the compendium.

The book begins by reviewing the history of pharmacopoeial texts from as far back as early Egyptian papyri. Surprisingly, the BP still features several remedies listed in these age-old accounts of materia medica. The book goes on to discuss the BP’s creation from the earlier London, Edinburgh and Dublin national pharmacopoeias and its subsequent evolution, leading towards its modern role in setting standards for many countries and working towards greater international harmonisation.

There is plenty of interest in the descriptions of ancient texts and in the content, reflecting the way the BP has taken account of changes over the years in medical practice, drug dosage forms and analytical techniques. However, the book becomes tedious in places, with dry summaries of the annual editions published since 1998.

The book has a delightful cover photograph of three heavily bearded Victorian gentlemen — the illustrious triumvirate who edited the BP’s third (1885) edition. Unfortunately, this photograph turns out to be the only interesting illustration. Inside are just 11 further monochrome images — two simple bar charts and nine dull portraits. This is a shame because the book would surely have benefited from more illustrations — medicinal plants, drug jars or analytical apparatus.

All in all, the book could be a valuable tool in the study of medical history, but its price will put it out of reach of the casual reader.


‘The British pharmacopoeia, 1864 to 2014: medicines, international standards and the state’, by Anthony C Cartwright. Pp 266 £70. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited; 2015. ISBN 978 1 4724 2032 9

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, 5 September 2015, Vol 295, No 7878;295(7878):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2015.20068503

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