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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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« Process Chemistry Makes the Headlines | Main | A Google Oddity »

May 16, 2011

Ups and Downs

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Posted by Derek

I was thinking the other day that I never remembered hearing the phrase "Big Pharma" when I first got a job in this business (1989). Now I have some empirical proof, thanks to the Google Labs Ngram Viewer, that the phrase has only come into prominence more recently. (Fair warning: you can waste substantial amounts of time messing with this site). Here's the incidence rate of "big pharma" in English-language books from 1988 to 2000.big%20pharma%20graph%2Cjpg.jpg
It comes from nowhere, blips to life in 1992, doesn't even really get off the baseline until 1994 or so, and then takes off. (The drops in 2005 and 2008 remain unexplained - did the log phase of its growth end in 2004?)

Update: that graph holds for the uncapitalized version of the phrase. If you put the words in caps, you get the even more dramatic takeoff shown below:

To be fair, though, there seems to have been a general rise in Big Pharma-related literature during that period. Try out this graph, comparing mentions of Merck, Pfizer, and Novartis since 1970. The last-named, of course, didn't even exist until the early 1990s, but they (like the others) have spent the time since then zipping right up, with no apparent end in sight. (Merck, especially - what's with those guys?) And what accounts for this? Business books? Investing guides? Speculation is welcome.

Note: the above paragraph was written before realizing that the Google Ngram search is case-sensitive - so, as was pointed out in the comments, I was picking up on people not caring about capitalization more than anything else. Below is the correct graph, with initial capitals in the search, and it makes more sense. Merck still is the king of book mentions, though, for all the coverage that Pfizer gets.

I'll finish off with this one, using a longer time scale. Yes, folks, for better or worse, it appears that the phrase "organic chemistry" peaked out between book covers around 1950, and has been declining ever since. Meanwhile, "total synthesis" starting rising during the World War II era (penicillin?), and kept on moving up until a peak around 1980. Interestingly, things turned around in 2000 or so, and especially since 2003. And this can't be ascribed to some sort of general surge in chemistry publications - look at the "organic chemistry" line during the same period. Is there some other field that's adopted the phrase?

Comments (20) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Drug Industry History | General Scientific News | The Scientific Literature


1. mother nature on May 16, 2011 8:32 AM writes...

I will take a stab- it is a marketing term that served HR well in massive recruitment campaigns during the 90's. Once class action lawsuits started trickling in, the term was basterdized.

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2. DrSnowboard on May 16, 2011 8:58 AM writes...

A consequence of 'biotechs' trying to differentiate themselves so they invented the antonym?

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3. petros on May 16, 2011 9:02 AM writes...

Perhaps Big Pharma was also coined to reflect the evolution of companies from modest revenues to large revenues due to the adoption of the (now broken) blockbuster model?

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4. stuff on May 16, 2011 9:09 AM writes...

Interesting that when you search for biotech/biotechnology, it, as expected, takes off in the 1980s, but there is a huge peak in about 1905. Wonder what that was about?

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5. HelicalZz on May 16, 2011 9:09 AM writes...

Speculation - there was probably a cover story in Newsweek or Forbes or some other national magazine titled 'Big Pharma' and the phrase had carryover.


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6. Anonymous on May 16, 2011 9:10 AM writes...

I think it might come from the world of politics.

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7. mph on May 16, 2011 9:31 AM writes...

Google ngram searches are case-sensitive. By searching for "pfizer" instead of "Pfizer", you're finding out when people became careless about capitalization, convolved with the real effects you're looking for.

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8. ProteinChemist on May 16, 2011 9:36 AM writes...

Biochemistry and Biophysics both peak in the late 70s/early 80s followed by a slow decline. Maybe the story is more about a changing lexicon than anything else? Translational Medicine, for example, starts in 96 and just takes off in 2000.

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9. Cellbio on May 16, 2011 9:43 AM writes...

Thanks Derek, I am sure to waste a lot of time.

The first phrase I tried, seamless integration, correlates well with "big pharma", however so does "going postal". The next, "work life balance", trails by a few years. All these peak around 2004, making me wonder if that reflects the database, so I checked "outsourcing", a steady rise. That might explain why work life balance rolls over. Not a lot of balance left when your work is elsewhere and all one is left with is life, but a seamlessly integrated life at that. Better jump into the "translational medicine" area, as that phrase is jumping through the roof.

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10. Pierre on May 16, 2011 9:43 AM writes...

Seems to correlate with the advent of direct-to-consumer advertising, no?

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11. anchor on May 16, 2011 10:02 AM writes...

For some time I have been pondering about this with out any scientific proof. This article pretty much rubs it in especially during these troubling times with large members of organic chemists still on the job block. More are added to the job pool and most of these are fresh graduates. It is very despondent situation and can not be sugar coated.

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12. anchor on May 16, 2011 10:04 AM writes...

For some time I have been pondering about this with out any scientific proof. This article pretty much rubs it in especially during these troubling times with large members of organic chemists still on the job block. More are added to the job pool and most of these are fresh graduates. It is very despondent situation and can not be sugar coated.

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13. Cellbio on May 16, 2011 10:27 AM writes...

Pharmacology- peaks in 1985
replaced by Molecular Medicine which starts to rise in 1990, then
Targeted Therapy and Systems Biology rise in 2000 while "magic bullet" begins to roll over.

Reminds me of a psychology article I read once...if humans rename something based upon our own experiences, many will think the fundamental nature of the thing will have changed....Has the fundamental nature of drug discovery changed, or just our tools and the labels we apply to the effort?

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14. Stefan on May 16, 2011 12:34 PM writes...

Interesting about the different companies, my thoughts:

1. There are 2 Mercks, our Merck here in the US and Merck kgaa in Germany.

2. Merck publishes more peer-reviewed scientific articles than any other big pharma (that data comes from part of a project I'm working on at the moment)

Interesting stuff.

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15. Fred on May 16, 2011 4:18 PM writes...

Come on now guys...clearly it was manufactured by anti-industry pols to put us on the level of "big tobacco" so as to facilitate the dems first attempt (hillarycare) at a takeover.

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16. chemist on May 16, 2011 6:16 PM writes...

Just a thought, but take off in 'total synthesis' may be due to 'synthesis' being adapted by the business community. I've found that 'synthesis' is often used when talking about devising plans in business settings. Guess the MBAs want to feel like they are smart. There is nothing more depressing then searching indeed and finding business jobs were chemistry posts should be.

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17. simpl on May 17, 2011 3:56 AM writes...

We used to use the word "ethical" before, when big pharma was smaller - try "ethical pharmaceutical industry", which picks up after 1945 and crashes after 1980. In contrast, "pharmaceutical industry" alone is still rising.

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18. IP on May 17, 2011 8:10 AM writes...

With respect to the Merck, Pfizer, Novartis graph it might be worthwhile to mention that the term "Merck" will hit two totally independent companies, i.e. Merck KGaA of Germany, and Merck&Co.

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19. evorich on May 19, 2011 6:19 PM writes...

Seemingly there was much written about baseball in the 1700's!

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20. gyges on May 23, 2011 2:13 PM writes...

It is said that the expression "conspiracy theorist" was used as a put down of people who criticised the failings of the Warren Commission when it reported about the assassination of Kennedy. Interestingly, when I put the phrase 'conspiracy theorists' into ngram the term started to appear in 1960 - 1965 (ten years later in 'British English' texts).


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