Millions of people take the over-the-counter pain medication Tylenol on a regular basis. It can help to relieve everything from the common headache to back pain or tooth pain. While the brand Tylenol was first introduced in 1955, the generic form of the drug, acetaminophen has been around much longer than that.
A Pharmacy Mistake Leads to the Discovery of the Many Uses of Acetaminophen
The history of the pain medicine acetaminophen dates to the end of the 19th century. The substance was first described in literature in 1878. In 1886, Dr. Arnold Cahn and Dr. Paul Hepp of France were treating a patient who was suffering from intestinal parasites. They had been investigating naphthalene for its beneficial effect of the treatment of the problem. When their drug supply ran out, they ordered more from a local pharmacy. An inexperienced pharmacist mistakenly filled the prescription with acetanilide.
Even though it was discovered in 1852 by the French chemist Charles Gerhardt, acetanilide was still an obscure drug at the time.
Cahn and Hepp Found that Acetanilide Had Analgesic Properties As Well
The physicians found that acetanilide produced marked fever reduction in one of their patients who, along with intestinal parasites, had a febrile disease. As Drs Cahn and Hepp continued to prescribe acetanilide, they also noticed that the drug had analgesic properties.
But it wasn’t until 1899 that the relationship between acetaminophen and acetanilide was discovered by Karl Morner of Germany. He learned that acetanilide is metabolized in the body to become acetaminophen.
A decade later, another German physician, Joseph Freiher von Mering, first synthesized acetaminophen. Although his research confirmed that the drug was effective against pain and fever, von Mering recommended extensive investigation into all analgesics and antipyretics.
Acetaminophen was not prescribed or studied any further until 1949, when research on chemically related drugs revived interest in the compound. Modern research techniques and the clinical use of the drug in England confirmed the effectiveness and safety of acetaminophen as a fever and pain reducer.
McNeil Jumps on the Opportunity
During the late 1940s, McNeil Laboratories, as the company was then known, had defined as a new product objective an analgesic that would be different, available for marketing and prescription only. At about the same time. James Roth M.D, a University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Medicine gastroenterologist was lecturing throughout the country about the dangers of using aspirin. At the same time, he started advocating for APAP. Dr. Roth soon became a principal consultant to McNeil, contributing to the company’s interest in the compound.
In 1951, the safety and efficacy of acetaminophen was described at a scientific symposium in New York City sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Analgesic and Sedative Drugs. According to the research reported at this meeting, acetaminophen was found to be as effective as aspirin, but without the harmful side effects, such as stomach irritation, gastrointestinal bleeding and impairment of the blood to clot normally.
Convinced of the safety and efficacy of the drug. McNeil began its own extensive research on acetaminophen which confirmed the findings reported at the symposium.
McNeil’s first use of APAP was as a component of the combination product, ALGOSON, an elixir which contained sodium butobarbital and acetaminophen. It was marketed in 1953 as a prescription analgesic.
The Introduction of Tylenol
In the spring of 1955, McNeil introduced Tylenol Elixir for Children. The company’s first single ingredient acetaminophen product. The outstanding success of Tylenol was attributed to a unique marketing strategy. To inform health care professionals of the undesirable effects of aspirin and ask them to recommend Tylenol to patients susceptible to these effects.
Marketed directly to physicians and pharmacists as a prescription product by McNeil’s pharmaceutical sales force, Tylenol Elixir received widespread acceptance as a safe and effective alternative to aspirin for the temporary relief of pain and fever. In success encouraged McNeil to develop other Tylenol products.
The Focus on Physicians
After Robert McNeil’s death in 1933, the company was incorporated under the name McNeil Laboratories, Inc. with Robert Lincoln McNeil serving as its first president.
Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert Lincoln McNeil Jr. (Bob), joined the company in 1938 after graduating from Yale University with a degree in physiological chemistry. As the first member of McNeil’s research department, his main focus was to analyze and trim the product line from 1.400 items down to 100 quality items.
A second son, Henry S. McNeil joined the company in 1939. Also, a Yale graduate with a degree in applied economic science, he focused on sales, converting the company’s business from direct selling to “detailing” physicians, and the new business approach was very successful.
During the same time. McNeil introduced Butisol Sodium, a daytime sedative which was the company’s leading product from 1948 to 1969. It was the first McNeil product to reach $1 million in sales.