Jeremy A. GreeneGeneric: The Unbranding of Modern Medicine

Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014

by Mikey McGovern on November 26, 2014

Jeremy A. Greene

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Is there any such thing as a generic drug? Jeremy A, Greene‘s new book Generic: The Unbranding of Modern Medicine (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) treats its subject matter with a learned skepticism that lets the reader see through the eyes of the historical actors who helped define the modern drug industry. By inverting preconceived notions about what we take to be mundane, mass-produced chemical identities, the book offers a broad yet pointed glance at an industry and its attendant regulatory structures that developed alongside modern consumer culture. Claims about the equivalence and lower price of generic medicines, uncoupled from the patents held by major firms, were always hotly contested, and Jeremy’s book shows how debates about branding–or lack thereof–were at the heart of the rationalization of medical practice.

Generic opens with evocative stories about the legal and scientific crises and personal tragedies wrought by tense relations between medical science and industry. We then learn about early debates over international standardization of chemical names and the emergence of firms that marketed generics as a specific kind of product that were a part of the very same consumer-driven value system their proponents wanted to replace. These anonymous drugs prompted research that could establish sufficient similarity between them, while at the same time provoking disputes of authority between physicians and pharmacists that produced a new regulatory regime and standards which were embodied and shaped by emerging large, bureaucratic health care providers. In the end, the story of generics as champions of access and affordability in an age of elusive therapeutics and ‘me-too’ drugs designed to cash in on innovation is complicated by the global changes in production and trade they have wrought. Are ‘global’ drugs perceived as ‘universal’? Jeremy’s book will promote discussion and thought about the medical mundanities we so often take for granted. Generic takes the philosophically-inflected themes of the history of science into a realm of pressing urgency, and reveals fascinating parallels that actually make it more enjoyable for a broad audience.

This interview is the first half of a pair of new books on the pharmaceutical industry; be on the lookout for my next interview with Joseph M. Gabriel about his new book: Medical Monopoly: Intellectual Property Rights and the Origins of the Modern Pharmaceutical Industry (University of Chicago Press, 2014).


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