Collaboration in the Pharmaceutical Industry: Changing Relationships in Britain and France, 1935–1965 (review)
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Collaboration in the Pharmaceutical Industry: Changing Relationships in Britain and France, 1935–1965. By Viviane Quirke. New York: Routledge, 2008. Pp x+365. $95.

The consumption of sophisticated research-based pharmaceuticals has been a striking characteristic of medical practice in the years since World War II, with the historiography tending to focus on the differences of that modern period from the empiricism of previous times, and on the U.S. context. In recent years, however, the inadequacies of this picture have become clearer. On the one hand, the links with prewar practice have become more evident. Historians have explored the role of the academic consultant in industrial networking and also the development of those two exceptional prewar developments, insulin and the sulfa drugs. On the other hand, historians have begun to look at European developments not just in terms of their resemblance to developments in the United States. Viviane Quirke’s excellent book based on her Oxford doctoral thesis reflects this new perspective as it compares the experience of the British and French pharmaceutical sectors across the World War II watershed.

France and Britain of course make an interesting pair. Though often at pains to emphasize their differences, the two countries have exhibited remarkable similarities. Thus in the fall of 1941 both Britain and Vichy France introduced new laws to regulate the medicinal drug industry. Both countries lost their empires immediately after World War II and developed their own rhetoric of decline and modernization. Interestingly, there is already a book comparing the pharmaceutical industry in Britain and France, L. Hancher’s Regulating for Competition: Government, Law, and the Pharmaceutical Industry in the United Kingdom and France (1990). But whereas that volume emphasizes the political economy of the industry in the two countries and the politics of regulation, Quirke’s book looks in detail at particular developments and the ways in which they illuminate the evolution of networks. Her use of the Rhône-Poulenc archives is especially important in enabling her to set her book apart.

Quirke compares the experience of the pharmaceutical industry in [End Page 975] France and Britain before, during, and after the war, exploring detailed case studies and also bringing out fundamental issues of network building, maintenance, and reconstruction. In the prewar era, she sees the rigidity of networks as a key factor: The French Pasteur Institute system was perhaps more flexible than the German system but the British was more adaptable. Quirke’s wartime study is based on the well-known case of penicillin in Britain and the less-well-known story of penicillin and antihistamines in France. Throughout the war, institutions such as the Pasteur Institute and Rhône-Poulenc continued to operate, albeit having tense relations with the Germans. Quirke shows how the war had a more radical effect on the pharmaceutical industry in France, defeated and occupied, than on the British industry. In both cases, however, wartime expediency was based on prewar experience and networks. Postwar rhetoric emphasized the poverty of the prewar legacy and wartime failings such as Britain’s “loss” of penicillin to the United States.

In the postwar years, Rhône-Poulenc’s emerging expertise with antihistamines led to the development of the first successful antipsychotic drug, Largactil, whose existence resulted in the closing of mental hospitals and asylums around the world. This success symbolized the radical reformation of French science and industry in the postwar years at an official level but also the collaborations occurring without state initiatives.

The chapter on the postwar years in Britain is entitled “‘Revolution through Continuity’ in Britain” and deals with the central role of the Medical Research Council in linking research institutions, firms, and the state. As the French system became more flexible, the British became more structured. Still, the pharmaceutical industry and the medical science of both countries were closely intermeshed, and Quirke makes the interesting argument that the introduction of the state actually created a greater separation between fundamental and applied research in major institutions.

This is a book that covers a lot of ground. And yet to the cultural historian there is a striking amount of empty space. The patient, the press, clinicians, and...