WOWI – What Once Was Imagined

People love to take medicine. Our imaginations have allowed us to dream of finding compounds that will relieve our pain and suffering. With the nineteenth century transformation of the local apothecary into an industrial pharmaceutical industry our dreams have in many ways come true.

In 1887 a German pharmaceutical company first synthesized Aspirin whose active ingredient salicylic acid was derived from the bark of the willow tree. Salicylic acid is present in a number of other plants and its ability to reduce both pain and fever was first documented by the Ancient Egyptians. What must have seemed like magic was gradually turned into medicine and is now taken completely for granted.

Suffering is part of the human condition and so in spite of the availability of a multitude of medicines the search continues for both organic and inorganic compounds from which to make new pills to help us live longer, healthier and happier lives.

The concept for Pharmacopoeia’s ‘mantilha’ centres on the fact that a significant number of drugs have their origins in plants and naturally occurring microorganisms. It is well known in the UK that the heart drug Digoxin is derived from the beautiful Foxglove plant. The most effective treatment for falciparum malaria was found in the plant Artemisinin; long known to the Chinese for its medicinal properties. Most recent of all the drug Crofelemer from the red sap of the Croton Lechleri plant, and used by indigenous cultures of the Amazon, has been approved for treating side effects of HIV antiretrovirals.

Whether in the chemistry laboratory or in the rain forest it takes a huge leap of the imagination to identify and then painstakingly develop and produce a new drug. Each pill, apparently so simple, is really nothing of the sort. It is an absolute triumph and testament to man’s intelligence and ingenuity.

As a family doctor I have many patients with cardiovascular disease—not surprising as it is the most common cause of mortality and morbidity worldwide. The 52 arrows around the edge of What Once Was Imagined constitute the weekly intake for one such patient. I prescribe a combination of drugs to be taken daily including a beta-blocker, an antihypertensive, a cholesterol-lowering drug and an aspirin to help prolong their life.

Dr Liz Lee

Photo: Joana França

Work in progress of a large circular artwork, pill packets being arranged in the shape of plants and flowers

2015