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The British Pharmaceutical Industry Since 1851 T.A.B. Corley Centre for International Business History, University of Reading



Britain’s Pharmaceutical Industry, like its petroleum industry, is one whichengland-durham-northumberland possesses a national comparative advantage both technologically and in the balance of overseas trade; yet it is not easy to delineate. Until quite recently, some member companies also made ranges of different products such as foodstuffs, household goods and heavy chemicals. Moreover, many producers in the UK are subsidiaries of overseas pharmaceutical corporations. Even so, the companies involved do form a recognisable industry, competing among themselves in the field of high-technology health care.

The outlines of such an industry began to emerge in the 1930s but became far more distinct after 1948 when the National Health Service (NHS) was set up. Official policies of actively encouraging the technological leaders – foreign as well as British – at the expense of the less adventurous followers, through its pricing and clinical testing rules for prescription drugs, allowed those comparative advantages to be built up. Vigorous competition flourishes also in marketing and in distribution to retail chemists and to other outlets for both ethical drugs and ‘over the counter’ remedies.

This article outlines some of the principal changes that have taken place from 1851 onwards in the systems of manufacture and distribution of these medicines. It also addresses the question of how and why the transformation occurred from low- to high2 technology production, from small to large scale, and from dependence on imports of advanced drugs to a high degree of self-sufficiency at home.

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