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The 10 Most Important Drugs

These breakthrough drugs made medicine modern.

5) Morphine: Banning the Bane of Pain

Despite the terrible problem of narcotic addiction, a world without morphine would have more suffering, not less.

Morphine is the active ingredient in opium, used from time beyond memory to treat pain. Isolated in the early 1800s, morphine was named after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams.

"Without morphine, untold numbers of people would have spent their lives in great pain," Stone says. "And it is used after surgery, alleviating a lot of suffering. It is the forerunner of several generations of pain-alleviating drugs. It is one of the great drugs of all time."

Ironically, efforts to create a non-addictive form of morphine led to the creation -- and marketing -- of diacetylmorphine by the Bayer company. Its 1898 brand name: Heroin.

Despite this and other missteps, morphine and its progeny form the basis of modern pain management. Modern doctors no longer see pain as a side effect of disease. They see it as harmful in and of itself. And they see it as treatable.

6) Aspirin: More Than a Headache Pill

"Aspirin was the first drug to show you can treat simple pain," Stone says. "In terms of the number of people who use it, it is more or less crucial for quality of life. Most people in the world have some kind of peripheral pain, muscle pain, or headache or arthritis, just to give a few examples. For those people, morphine would be inappropriate. As an analgesic, aspirin is very important."

Of course, there now are analgesics with similar modes of action. Some work better for some people, and some avoid some of aspirin's side effects. But more than 100 years after its invention, it's still widely recommended -- and widely used.

"I would single out aspirin from all the other [drugs of its class]," Benet says.

Stone and Greenberg note that aspirin is having a revival. It fights inflammation, a process at the core of heart disease and, perhaps, some cancers.

"It's funny that now every man over 40 and every women over 50 is supposed to be taking this 100-year-old drug," Greenberg says.

7) Salvarsan -- The Cure for Lust

Chances are, Salvarsan didn't make your list of most important drugs. But historians Swann and Greenberg say it belongs in the club.

Salvarsan is the trade name for arsphenamine, invented in 1909. It's also known as Ehrlich 606 because it was the 606th compound tested by the legendary German scientist Paul Ehrlich and colleague Sahachiro Hata as a treatment for syphilis. It worked because the arsenic-based compound is a bit more poisonous to syphilis bacteria than it is to humans.

The treatment made people dreadfully ill. But it didn't kill them, which syphilis would eventually do. Some 20 to 40 treatments, over the course of a year, were needed to cure the disease.

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