Insight on Fluoxetine: The Background and Issues Concerning a Controversial Designer Drug

The word "pharmacology" derives from the ancient Greek word pharmakon. In the Odyssey, Homer used the word to refer to a drug or a charm (Weatherall, 1990). Today, pharmacology comprises a large part of the western practice of medicine (Breggin, 1991; Klass, 1975). The use of drugs is now a fundamental part in the process of health care (Klass, 1975). Recently, a certain psychopharmaceutical agent has attracted much media attention. This drug is fluoxetine, an anti-depressant reported to have properties that go beyond the relief of depression and in some cases seem to ameliorate broader areas of the person. Peter Kramer has stated that fluoxetine could make an improvement in the human condition (Kramer, 1993). Fluoxetine sales reached one billion dollars in 1993 (Breggin, 1994). This is twice the amount that the United States government spent on funding for psychological research in the same span of time (Hunt, 1993).

Not all of the reactions to this drug have been as enthusiastic. Those like Peter Breggin criticize fluoxetine, and some like Breggin and Thomas Szats criticize the practice of psychopharmacology in general (Breggin, 1991). Szats believes that psychiatry is not a method of treating mental illness, but a system of social controls (Szats, 1990). Breggin states that neuroleptics are used as a method of social control, and function as a chemical lobotomy (Breggin, 1990). Both claim that such drugs are not treating the disease as well as is believed and that the harmful effects of psychopharmacology outweigh the improvements (Breggin, 1991).

What is the true status of drugs such as fluoxetine, are they a boon to humanity? Kramer claims that "the capacity of modern medicine to allow a person to experience on a stable and continuous basis, the feelings of someone with a different and history is among the most extraordinary achievements of modern science," (1993). Or is the advice of Dr. Oliver Wendel Holmes appropriate, that "if all the drugs that had ever been used for the cure of human ills were gathered together and thrown into the sea it would be ever so much better for humanity and ever so much worse for the fishes," (Walsh, 1923 p. 34)?

This issue will be examined in many different contexts in order to better grasp the relevance and importance of the creation of fluoxetine. An analysis of some of the factors involved that produced such a drug in our modern medical system will lead to a better understanding of the drug, and the role that it plays in our society.