The Colorful History of Pills Can Fill Many a Tablet

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We recently learned that the inventor of Life Savers candies was inspired, in the early 20th century, to make his candy after witnessing a pharmacist make pills with an old-fashioned pill machine.

All very fine and creative. But who, we’d like to know, invented pills?

Someone way, way back when, says George Griffenhagen, a retired pharmacist with a penchant for history who resides in Vienna, Va. (Griffenhagen has made quite a study of the pill question. He’s even written about pill history.) Pills, he says, date back to roughly 1500 BC--and they were presumably invented so that measured amounts of a medicinal substance could be delivered to a patient. Earlier than that--say, 4,000 years ago--recipes were generally for liquid preparations. For instance, a tasty-sounding medicinal recipe inscribed on an Assyrian clay tablet instructs the user to pulverize various seeds, plant resins and leaves together--then dissolve them in beer.

The first pill references crop up in ancient Egyptian times, Griffenhagen says. One famous set of papyruses is filled with medical remedies, including pills made from bread dough, honey or grease.


Plant powders, or other active ingredients, would be mixed with these substances--then little balls, or pills, would be formed with the fingers. (Early ingredients of pills included saffron, myrrh, cinnamon, tree resins and a slew of other botanicals.)

Not that the word “pill” was used then. In ancient Greece, the round balls or other shapes were called katapotia (meaning “something to be swallowed”). It was the Roman scholar Pliny--who lived from 23-79 AD--who first coined the word “pilula.”

Pills came in various sizes as well as flat and round, and other assorted shapes (and, if they were anything like their modern counterparts, some of them were doubtless large and nigh-impossible to swallow). As far back as 500 BC, some were trademarked with special indentations in the pills.

Beginning in medieval times, people would coat their pills with slimy plant substances and other materials so they’d go down more easily or taste less bitter.

“They rolled them in spices, and later decided to put gold and silver on them,” says Griffenhagen. The latter, unfortunately, rendered the pills pretty inert, since they’d pass right through the digestive tract without releasing any of their medicinal compounds. (Gilding of pills, amazingly, continued well into the 19th century.)

Some early pills still exist in museums, such as a famous one dating from 500 BC. that was known as Terra Sigillata--consisting of clay from a particular island that was mixed with goat’s blood then shaped into pills. (Terra Sigillata was supposedly good for practically everything that ails you, Griffenhagen says, including dysentery, ulcers and gonorrhea.)


Also residing in museums are pieces of ancient Roman pill-making equipment, such as a stone in the British Museum. The stone has long flat grooves into which the pill maker would press clay or other substances to make long, snaky strings. Then the pill maker would prize the strings out and cut them into discs to form pills--much the way one cuts dough for cookies.

Medicines in pill form were all the rage in 17th century England and thereafter. Pill manufacturers were even granted special patent rights from the king for their top-secret formulas.

One famous patented product from the 18th century: “Hooper’s Female Pills,” which were guaranteed to contain “the best purging and anti-hysterik ingredients.”

And pills, of course, made their way over to the still-new United States--which had its own set of patent-protected preparations, courtesy of the U.S. Patent office--including Chase’s Kidney-Liver Pills, Cheeseman’s Female Regulating Pills and (Griffenhagen’s personal favorite) Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People.

The old-fashioned, roll-and-cut kinds of pills had a drawback: Their preparation required moisture.

Sometimes, doctors were learning, this moisture could inactivate the drugs contained therein.


The 1800s saw a whole slew of innovations: sugar-coating and gelatin-coating of pills--as well as the invention of gelatin capsules. It also rang the death knell for the old, original pill with the invention of the compressed tablet.

In 1843, a Brit named William Brockedon invented a totally different kind of pill. You’d put powder in a tube and then compress it to solidity with a mallet.

Eventually, his invention caught on. “Pills as such are no longer made,” says Griffenhagen--with just a hint, we sense, of regret.


If you have an idea for a Booster Shots topic, write or e-mail Rosie Mestel at the Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st. St., Los Angeles, CA 90012,