Diuril: Reshaping Hypertension, and…Improving Medicine?

In Greene’s article “Releasing the Flood Waters: Diuril and the Reshaping of Hypertension,” a history of the development and promotion of an antihypertension drug named ‘Diuril’, is discussed in length. The pharmaceutical firm of Merck, Sharp & Dohme (MSD) (who were behind other ‘miracle drugs’ including penicillin, streptomycin, and cortisone as well), remarkably advanced Diuril to the forefront of hypertensive therapy without the drug being designed to do so. Rather, it was developed to prevent penicillin from being metabolized by the body so quickly during the shortage of that drug over the Second World War. Coincidentally, it was found to have great use in treating hypertension without the common side effects of current drugs, and was therefore ‘re-branded’ to do just that – a brilliant move by MSD to both increase and improve available treatments for hypertension, as well as significantly increasing their profits as a firm since a 1957 survey had concluded that approximately 5.3 million Americans were suffering from some form of hypertension. (Greene, 761)

Whether their motivations were strictly profit driven or not, what ensued after MSD re-branded Diuril as a hypertension drug was remarkable: the drug was being promoted to physicians in prestigious journals, medical news magazines, as in-office figurines, and it even earned a spot in Readers Digest. Importantly for MSD, the medical community accepted Diuril and increased the scope of its use from simply treating patients with hypertension, to treating those who were at risk of developing hypertension with above average blood pressure. It seems as though the waters became murky for physicians when they asked what exactly they were treating – whether it was hypertension or not. Still, one cannot help but commend the efforts of the time, as Greene notes of a stepping stone in development of preventative medicine: “Over the course of the 1960s…arguments for preventive treatment began to shift from a fatalistic logic of degeneration to an activist logic of reversibility and prevention of secondary conditions.” (787)    

-JL

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