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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 14, 2008

Pen and Paper

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Posted by Derek

Registering some new compounds for testing, as I’ve been doing recently, has me thinking about how that was done when I started at my first company. This was in the fall of 1989, so while it’s not exactly the Ancient Old Days, it’s not last week, either. (There are plenty of readers here who go back further). But as far as the technology involved, it looked a lot closer to 1950 than it does to today.

For one thing, I saw the tail end of the Bare Desk Era: we didn’t have computers on our desks - at least, most of us didn’t. I found that a bit strange when I joined – not outrageous, as it would have been just two or three years later, but a little disappointing. Some scientists at the PhD level shared computers, but I started out not even doing that. In that company, in those days, those machines were Macs. (After a long PC interregnum, I’m working in a Mac environment again these days, which is fine by me). I didn’t even have a shared computer at first; when I finally got a part of one, it was a Mac IIcx, which these days hardly seems like something you could even use to archive your tuna salad recipes. Of course, you could wander around at that point and still see Mac SEs in use out in the biology labs, so everything was (is) relative. I thought the IIcx was a fine machine; even half of one was a lot better than a bare desk.

The lack of computers was official policy. The way I heard it put was that management wanted us in front of our hoods, not in front of our screens. Had they only known about web surfing, their fears would have been confirmed but good. They'd have needed a fortune teller, though, since there was no web to waste any time on in 1989. (I remember using Telnet from my home machine in late 1991 or early 1992 to go look at this hypertext thingie at CERN that I’d read about, and I distinctly remember the odd sensation when the welcome screen scrolled up, as if I’d suddenly traveled to Geneva).

No computers meant no e-mail, of course. That came along within a couple of years, but I got a similar brief exposure to the pre-electronic workplace, where those office mail slots down the hall were where you got printed notices of the meetings you needed to attend. Papers you needed to read or documents you needed to have came in those brown envelopes with the string closures, one of which now shows up in my current mail slot every three weeks or so. And no computers meant no online registration of new compounds. That you did with a paper form.

And not with just any form. This one had multicolored layers, and was made out of that pressure-sensitive paper with the odd feel to it. You pressed hard as you drew your structure with a ballpoint pen in the box provided – the yellow copy at the bottom of the stack was for your files, and you wanted to be able to read the thing if there was a problem with the registration. Below was an area with multiple check boxes for the different assays. That was a bit out of date even when I got there – the company had printed up piles of these things with all the assays that they typically ran, but as cloned receptors and the like became available, the assays were beginning to change faster than paper forms could keep up.

Then you took your forms and the corresponding vials and walked them over a couple of buildings to turn them in. In a few days, you’d get a printout of your compound by interoffice mail, with its structure now re-entered into some sort of mainframe database (probably with one of those Calcomp or Summagraphics drawing tablets). My first compound had a registration number in the high thirty-thousands; this in a company that had been around since the Second World War. By the time I left, eight years later, the registration numbers were over twice that figure and climbing fast, and that didn’t count the separate libraries that had been purchased along the way.

The project I was on generated a lot of data, but there was no central place for all of it. The people who ran the assays rated desktop computers of their own, and they kept the numbers there, in whatever format suited them. One biologist retired on us, and when we needed his assay data a few years later, it turned out that no one could put their hands on his files. Everyone, it seemed, had figured that someone else was taking care of that. In the end, a note went out for everyone to root out their old meeting handouts from 1990, since those had his presentations of the assay numbers – those would have to do until we could get the compounds re-run. Even at the time, it occurred to me that this was no way to handle data.

Comments (12) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Drug Industry History


1. jose on March 14, 2008 9:47 AM writes...

I heard from a co-worker that as late as the early '80s, Sterling-Winthrop (RIP) still had a "taste" box on compound submission cards.

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2. Petros on March 14, 2008 11:44 AM writes...

I still remember our Instituted head insistining on tasting my compound that was waiting to go into the clinic. This was in the late 80s and was (I think) before we had the full, but very clean, tox results back. His attitude was conditioned by an earlier project on inhaled anti-allergic which died becuse the aste was so unpleasnt.

As for odd boxes on compound forms, the Wonder Drug FActory's agrochem divion had a box for purity in which numbers as low as 10% were seen!

When I started the biologists had just progressed to electonic chart recorders obviating the need to use smoked drums (Smoked with benzene!) while PCs were a long way off.

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3. milkshake on March 14, 2008 11:48 AM writes...

Ah, my first company job in 93 in Tucson AZ had couple of Gateway 486 PCs that we all shared - but it could run DOOM nicely and we played it multiplayer on LAN all the time. Later my boss bought the first Pentium, to run Hyperchem calculation on it. Then the internet started.

Two years before that, I wrote my thesis on incredibly clunky DOS-based text editor that was never commercial and was crashing and losing data all the time. Using the giant benadable floppies, I ported it into Xi-writer on a better machine and printed it on pin printer. The structures were hand-drawn in.

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4. Scot on March 14, 2008 4:39 PM writes...

I wrote my dissertation on a 286 PC, and drew the structures on a (I think) Mac Classic in 92. The I cut-and-paste (cut with scissors and pasted with scotch tape) the structures into a printout of the text, whitespace appropriately placed by trial-and-error. Better than the guy before me, I guess, who drew his strucutres with a stencil (one of which I still have on my desk, propping up my printer which wobbles without it - how's that for karma?)

The first chemistry related thing I did on a computer was to write a program for plotting titration cures on a TRS80, in high school.

I know the feeling of travelling to Geneva, Derek - I still get that every time I stop and think about it when I'm on the web.

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5. NJBiologist on March 14, 2008 5:55 PM writes...

...when I finally got a part of one, it was a Mac IIcx, which these days hardly seems like something you could even use to archive your tuna salad recipes.

Hey, Derek, don't underestimate Hypercard.

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6. S Silverstein on March 14, 2008 6:14 PM writes...

Derek wrote:

... when I finally got a part of one, it was a Mac IIcx, which these days hardly seems like something you could even use to archive your tuna salad recipes.

A line from Chuck Yeager:

It's not the machine; it's the man.

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7. processchemist on March 15, 2008 3:40 AM writes...

In 93 I performed Gibbs free energy calculations for my dissertation on a 486 DX with the DOS version of Mathcad: a nightmare. One year later the fitting of kinetic equations with Mathematica for Windows for the same work: a dream.

For batch records paper still rule everywhere.
But when I became production manager in a small company at the end of 90's (fine chemicals, not pharma) I developed a relational database with Filemaker Pro, to have also an electronic duplicate of all the batch records. To fill in the electronic version was not wasted time: a campaign report was a simple query - few secs to have it on the screen, few minutes to have the printed copy, no problem to have all the data exported on an excel file.

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8. fyrd on March 17, 2008 3:09 PM writes...

"After a long PC interregnum, I’m working in a Mac environment again these days, which is fine by me"

Congrats! Someday, someday-- been waiting since 1995.

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9. Ozymandias on March 17, 2008 10:44 PM writes...

Maybe we could have a post and a discussion about the kind of software that people use today? Or, if people have strong ideas on what kind of software would make lives easier, if it existed, tomorrow?

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10. kirrasoul on March 18, 2008 6:57 AM writes...

Ozymandias that is a really good idea for a post, I'd be keen.

I would love to have an endnote like program but for handling compounds. That would make writing easier somedays.

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11. rosko on March 18, 2008 5:25 PM writes...

Wow, all of you people have such "old-school" chemistry experiences. I'm currently a 1st year grad student (interestingly not in chemistry), though I did my undergrad in chemistry and of course I always took things like ChemDraw structures and PDB file viewers for granted.

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12. gmcenroe on April 17, 2008 11:01 AM writes...

I remember registering compounds with the earliest implementation of Molecular Design Software on a shared terminal in the early 1980s. I think it was a DEC terminal with green on black images. The software was somewhat primative, if you had any stereocenters and you flipped your structure stereocenters were not inverted on flips so you had to check those. The software did improve with time and at one point they had a pad that you could hand draw structures, but only the head of the department had that. He wasn't registering anything!

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