Chemists and chemistry have long been at the heart of efforts to preserve and restore good health by means of medicines. Where once medicines were discovered by trial and error, increasingly over time chemists and other scientists have made their discoveries on the basis of more and more detailed knowledge of biomolecules. In turn, a wide range of substances—from dyestuffs to mold juices to newer products of biotechnology—have been deployed to serve the purposes of relieving pain, preventing and treating infectious diseases, restoring and regulating the body’s biochemistry, and making accurate diagnoses.
From time immemorial humans have sought relief from pain and fever in various plant, animal, and mineral substances. By the 19th century, scientists were using chemical methods to isolate the pure active ingredients from these natural materials. Aspirin and Tylenol are just two examples of the success of these methods.
From rabies and polio to syphilis and staph infections, many infectious diseases that once instilled widespread fear among human populations have been tamed by the inventors of vaccines and drugs like antibiotics.
Scientists have made great strides in understanding how the body’s own chemicals regulate its functions and transmit information among its parts. This knowledge has led to revolutionary drug treatments that work by assisting or interfering with these natural regulators and transmitters.
Not all diseases manifest clearly recognizable physical symptoms, or by the time the symptoms are visible, it may be too late to successfully treat the illness. Early and accurate diagnosis of disease is essential to saving lives, and chemistry has played an important role in developing diagnostic tests.
With the advent of recombinant DNA technology in the late 1970s, scientists became able to make microbes and tumor cells produce substances that are natural to the human body but in critically short supply. Through genetic engineering, scientists have succeeded in synthetically producing human hormones and other beneficial pharmaceuticals.