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  • Glaxo: A History to 1962
  • David Cantor
R. P. T. Davenport-Hines and Judy Slinn. Glaxo: A History to 1962. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. xiv + 406 pp. Ill. $110.00.

This is the story of Glaxo, the dried-milk powder that gave its name to a pharmaceutical company. The company that became Glaxo was founded by Joseph Nathan, a Jewish Londoner who migrated to Australia in 1853 to prospect for gold. Apparently a policeman advised him that he had a poor chance of striking it rich, so he set up as a general trader supplying other prospectors. In 1857 he moved to New Zealand and established a new company trading in dairy products and with interests in shipping and railways. In 1903 the company acquired rights to a new high-temperature method of drying milk, seeing it as a solution to surplus skimmed-milk production at its creameries and butteries. After a shaky start, Joseph Nathan & Sons established the dried-milk product as a baby food in Britain, marketed under the label Glaxo. During the Great War, contracts from municipal authorities and the Ministry of Food boosted sales, and by 1917 Glaxo was a household name in Britain, the mainstay of Nathan’s business. Sales of Glaxo boomed in Britain after the war, but dropped in 1920 with the recession, and they remained vulnerable to the economic fluctuations of the interwar years, to Government “threats” to pasteurize fresh milk and impose import duty, and to problems in milk supply and quality control. Despite these difficulties, by the early 1930s power had shifted from Nathan’s New Zealand office to London.

Following a successful diversification into vitamin supplements, in 1935 Nathan’s turned its Glaxo Department into a separate company called Glaxo Laboratories. The new company focused on pharmaceuticals, which began to dominate Nathan’s activities, and in 1947 Glaxo Laboratories took over its parent company. During the war, Glaxo had manufactured penicillin, first by the surface-culture method—a method related to that of processing cheese, of which Glaxo had considerable experience—and later by deep-fermentation methods under an agreement with Merck and Squibb. After 1947, it greatly expanded its pharmaceutical work, especially on vitamin B12, streptomycin, the corticosteroids, vaccines, and the antibiotic griseofulvin (the first major pharmaceutical product identified and developed by Glaxo rather than licensed from the United States).

Despite griseofulvin, Glaxo remained dependent on American licenses. [End Page 155] American companies invested substantially more in research, while Britain’s post-World War II economic problems hampered the expansion of Glaxo’s own research, development, and production. By the 1950s the company had become fearful of takeover by larger American predators at a time when the pace of merger activity was quickening. Glaxo responded by amalgamating, first with Allen and Hanbury’s (1958) and then with Evans Medical (1961). The rest of the book explores Glaxo in North and South America (where it was increasingly excluded by U.S. market domination and nationalist sentiment), the British Commonwealth (which remained its main focus of attention outside of Britain), and Europe (largely neglected by Glaxo, even in the early 1960s with the prospect of Britain’s joining the Common Market). The book ends with the retirement in 1963 of Glaxo’s dynamic chairman and managing director, Harry Jephcott—a chemist originally hired by Nathan’s in 1920 to improve quality control in dried milk, and the inspiration behind its move into pharmaceuticals.

Glaxo is primarily a business history, but it explores a number of themes of interest to medical historians. For example, the chapters on Glaxo the milk powder provide a commercial perspective on the infant welfare movement, as well as the politics of health around milk in Britain. So, too, the chapters on Glaxo the drug company provide insights into the culture of marketing “ethical” drugs; the meanings and forms of research for pharmaceutical companies; and the relations between the British pharmaceutical industry and the emergent global economic and commercial domination of the United States, the decline of the British Empire, and European economic recovery after World War II. Thus this commissioned history addresses broader historical issues than the fate of Glaxo itself; however, it...

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