Posted on 10/06/2023 15:38Modified on 10/08/2023 09:24


What kind of medicines did the first pharmaceutical firm sell?

Engel-Apotheke in Darmstadt. (Photo=Merck Group)

[관련기사=세계 최초 제약회사는 어떤 의약품을 판매했을까]

The Merck of Germany, Contributed to Scientific Movement and industrialization by opium in the 19th century…Entered overseas markets such as Russia, the U.S., and China  

To find out what is the world's oldest pharmaceutical firm, we have to go back to the 17th century. Back in the 1660s, Hyojong who was the 17th king of the Joseon Dynasty was on the throne. This was also the period when Hendrik Hamel, a Dutchman who is famous for ‘The Story of Hamel Adrift’, stayed in Joseon. In China, Kang Xijae who was the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty ascended the throne. In Europe, France started to begin build up its national power under the absolute monarchy represented by Louis XIV after the Reformation and the Thirty Years' War.

In the course of this history, Friedrich Jacob Merck took over Engel-Apotheke (Angel Pharmacy) in Darmstadt of Germany in 1668. This is where the Merck Group started. Since then, Merck has become the oldest pharmaceutical firm in existence over 13 generations. Angel Pharmacy is still owned by the Merck family.

What kind of medicines did pharmacies sell in the 17th century? The pharmacists manufactured medicines from plants, animals, and minerals in those days, according to records. Although it was not the same form as current medicines, it is said that the quality and price of them were managed by the pharmacy orders and taxes.

Pharmacy started to become advanced into the field of science in the mid-18th century. Merck also went through major changes during this period. At the center, there was Heinrich Emanuel Merck and opium.
Heinrich Emanuel Merck. (Photo=Merck Group)

Emmanuel Merck who is a descendant of the founder took over Angel Pharmacy in 1816. Emmanuel Merck succeeded in producing pure alkaloid with a plant component in a pharmaceutical laboratory that sparked great interest in the scientific community at the time, and it has been evaluated to have laid the foundation for science-centered enterprises throughout the 19th century. It also started producing and selling these substances in great quantities, and this situation led to the establishment of pharmaceutical and chemical plants.

Emmanuel Merck made great efforts to identify opium and its components. He published a scientific paper on manufacturing morphine in 'Magazin für Pharmazie' in 1826, and started to sell morphine commercially in 1827. Morphine, a major component of opium, acts on opioid receptors in the central nervous system and exert painkilling effects. It is still used to reduce pain and postoperative pain for terminal cancer patients who cannot be effective with general painkillers even to this date.

His son Georg Merck discovered papaverine which is a new alkaloid of opium in 1848. It is the seventh known alkaloid of opium, which differs from morphine in structural and pharmacological action. This was not used in the decades due to the question of establishment on a unique pharmacological action mechanism and therapeutic value since its discovery. It is being used to reduce gastrointestinal tract and biliary convulsion, pain, and also peripheral circulatory disturbance as an antispasmodic at present.

The discovery of alkaloids which is a new organic base in coca leaves, named cocaine was reported from Friedrich Wöhler, a German chemist in 1860. It was recognized as a vitalized and performance-enhancing substance at that time. However, Merck paid attention to medical use of it and jumped into the production and sales of cocaine from 1884.

Merck said, "Although no doubt may prevail that cocaine is a poison, but it is one of the most valuable agents in various different branches of medicine", according to records. Willy and Carl Emanuel of Merck family devoted themselves to their research on cocaine and they collaborated with Richard Willstätter, Nobel Prize laureate in 1896, in decades to determine the composition and synthesis of cocaine.  
Quality control laboratory. (Photo=Merck Group)

Merck attached particular great importance on the quality of the product. Emmanuel Merck wrote a letter to his client in 1851, "​I guarantee you consistent purity of my preparations and will compensate you for any loss arising from an impure preparation.", according to records.

Purity-guaranteed reagent, which was labeled 'pro analysi (for analysis)' was released in 1888. According to Merck, this reagent was manufactured based on  binding purity standards and laid the foundation for comparative chemical analysis. At the same time, he established a quality control laboratory to monitor the high standards.

Merck has also entered overseas markets such as Russia, the U.S., and China actively based on its major products, morphine and cocaine.

In 1832, J. D. Specht in St. Petersburg was the first customer listed on the ledger of transactions. Merck established the Russian department at the end of the 19th century, since the Russian market became more and more important. E. Merck's Annual Reviews on Innovations in the Fields of Pharmacy and Pharmacy has been published by Merck since 1887, and it was even published in Russian from 1892 to 1913.

However, World War I broke out in 1917 and the business with Russia was halted. In subsequent decades direct business with Russia was not possible, and he started his business in Russia again in the mid 1990s.

Georg Merck who has discovered papaverin joined the company as a businessman in 1886, and founded the company in New York under the name of "Merck & Co." in 1890.  The export business to the U.S. was also a great success in 1897. When high tariffs on imported goods became a problem, he established a self-production plant in the United States, and registered it as a stock company in 1908.

However, Merck lost his subsidiaries including Merck & Co. due to World War I. E. Merck of Germany and Merck & Co. were separated in 1919, and it became an individual company completely. Currently, Merck & Co. of the United States holds a monopoly in North America under the name 'Merck' (known as MSD outside of the US and Canada), and Merck KGaA of Germany has the same rights in the rest of the regions (known as EMD in the United States).

In 1888, Willie Merck who is the eighth-generation entrepreneur of the Merck family visited China in order to explore the possibility of trade. The oldest documented business-related contacts goes way back to the annual reports of 1897 and 1898, according to Merck. The first customer was J. Llewellyn & Co. in Shanghai. Voelkel & Schroeder, Ltd. of Shanghai was appointed as China's first representative company in 1911. However, the business sales were recorded to have declined significantly in the following year due to tighter trade restrictions on major products such as morphine and cocaine.

E. Merck Chemical Co. which is the first Merck subsidiary of China was established in Shanghai in 1933, but it was liquidated after World War II. Merck reopened its offices in Beijing and Shanghai in 1995, and established Shanghai E. Merck International Trading in 1997. Thus, he began operating his business in China through his own corporate body.

by Do Yeong Park

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