HIS32960 Pills, Patents & Policies

Academic Year 2023/2024

Over the past 140 years, a pharmaceutical revolution has transformed our lives. Across the world, billions people have used sophisticated technologies ranging from vaccines to antibiotics to combat once lethal diseases. Many others rely on regular access to insulin, statins, and hormones to manage their health and bodies. Meanwhile, increasingly fine-grained diagnostics allow us to identify various risk factors long before any actual disease manifests. But access to these breakthroughs has never been even. While Western healthcare systems spend an ever-greater part of their income on pharmaceuticals and big companies earn record profits, large parts of the world’s population still have uneven or no access to lifesaving drugs. This is despite a long history of therapeutic experimentation on non-European bodies and the increased outsourcing of often highly polluting pharmaceutical manufacturing to the Global South.

Pills, patents, and policies lifts the veil on triumphs, challenges, and failures of the biomedical revolution. Focusing on the long 20th century (ca. 1880 to COVID-19), the course introduces students to the dynamic world of public and commercial research, intellectual property, and global supply chains that made the pharmaceutical revolution possible. Students will learn how the early 19th century saw a new mode of systematised biomedical research, global bioprospecting, and industrial production and marketing lay the groundwork for a steady stream of pharmaceutical breakthroughs. They will also explore how resulting fallouts such as fatalities resulting from contaminated products or unexpected adverse effects laid the ground for a new system of safeguards like clinical trials and regulatory agencies that we still rely on. Focusing on the evolution of pharmaceutical innovation and marketing, students will also study how the 20th century saw new forms of venture capitalism, molecular innovation, and global supply chains require different approaches protecting intellectual property – and how resulting legal frameworks helped cement health inequalities in poorer parts of the world.

At the end of the course, students will have gained insight into the origins, evolution, winners, and losers of the biomedical world they inhabit. In addition to exploring relevant secondary literature, they will have also gathered useful experience in working with a range of primary sources including pharmaceutical journals, newspapers, business reports, scientific papers, official reports, and judicial hearings.

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Curricular information is subject to change

Learning Outcomes:

At the end of the module, students will have learnt about:
- The historical roots and evolution of the pharmaceutical revolution and associated biomedical sciences (microbiology, immunology, genetics, and biochemistry).
- The (post)colonial dimensions of pharmaceutical research and development.
- The rise and importance of regulatory science and clinical trials.
- The changing nature of intellectual property and concepts of innovation.
- The impact of (neo)capitalism, globalisation, and venture capital on pharmaceutical supply chains and access.
- The fallouts of the biomedical revolution in the form of pollution, lack of access, and overmedicalisation.

Indicative Module Content:

Week 1 Fever trees, poisons & active principles - the emergence of modern pharmaceuticals
Week 2 From snake oil to pharma: patents, trademarks, and ethical drugs.
Week 3 A virtuous circle of innovation? Connecting the laboratory, factory, and clinic.
Week 4 Defining effectiveness: testing and trialling vaccines and therapeutics on vulnerable populations.
Week 5 Magic Bullets: selective drug action and the origins of the antibiotic era.
Week 6 Global markets – Global access? Tracing the first wave of pharmaceutical globalisation
Week 7 Mother's Little Helper? Pharmaceutical companies and the 'golden age' of drug innovation and marketing.
Week 8 Reading Week
Week 9 Reading Week
Week 10 Scandals, scares, and gold standards: reconstructing the rise of a new system of regulatory agencies, clinical trials, and substance testing.
Week 11 Pharma 2.0: biotech, generics, and the outsourcing of pharmaceutical production.
Week 12 Pioneering or Profiteering? Intellectual property, innovation, and antiretrovirals amidst the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Week 13 From financial to societal value. A new turn of pharmaceutical business models?/ Laboratory Visit Siobhán McClean

Student Effort Hours: 
Student Effort Type Hours
Seminar (or Webinar)


Specified Learning Activities


Autonomous Student Learning




Approaches to Teaching and Learning:
This interactive module will be based on in person seminars during which students will discuss precirculated texts, images, movies, and other sources in light of the weekly themes with the module coordinator and amongst each other. To facilitate a bottom-up,
small-group, task-based form of active learning, each week will see one or two students present a poster on the weekly theme. This will develop advanced communication and presentation skills. The wider group will subsequently engage in a constructive discussion of the poster in light of the precirculated literature and source material. The module is explicitly designed to link the long history of pharmaceutical R&D, marketing, and regulation with current issues and to stimulate discussion within the seminar. Students can choose to cover resulting research questions in their end of term essay, which will train students in advanced research, writing, and citation skills. The lecturer will provide feedback on participation, poster presentation, and essay to students on an individual basis. Weekly virtual office hours will be offered.
Requirements, Exclusions and Recommendations

Not applicable to this module.

Module Requisites and Incompatibles
Not applicable to this module.
Assessment Strategy  
Description Timing Open Book Exam Component Scale Must Pass Component % of Final Grade In Module Component Repeat Offered
Continuous Assessment: In class assessment of participation and preparation. Throughout the Trimester n/a Graded No


Essay: End of term essay (4,000 words including footnotes) Week 12 n/a Graded No


Presentation: Poster presentation (800 words including footnotes)

Unspecified n/a Graded No



Carry forward of passed components
Resit In Terminal Exam
Autumn No
Please see Student Jargon Buster for more information about remediation types and timing. 
Feedback Strategy/Strategies

• Feedback individually to students, on an activity or draft prior to summative assessment
• Feedback individually to students, post-assessment
• Group/class feedback, post-assessment
• Online automated feedback
• Peer review activities

How will my Feedback be Delivered?

Detailed feedback on the essay and participation in the module will be provided to students by the module coordinator individually during office hours as well as feedback on the poster presentation. The poster presentation will also be discussed by the wider group as a form of constructive and positive critique.