Kaboom! The Explosive Journey to Viagra

viagra illustration

What do hearts, explosions, and erections all have in common? Alfred Nobel!

Pretty much everyone knows what a Nobel prize is, even if they don’t know who Alfred Nobel is.


Well, he made his living in explosives, and he’s the one we have to thank for all those Warner Bros cartoons where Wiley Coyote gets blown to smithereens because he invented dynamite. However, Mr Nobel was a little bit afraid that his legacy would be as “the guy who blew a lot of stuff up” – particularly since his invention was extremely popular with bomb-makers, and a French newspaper had already mistakenly published an obituary for him titled “The Merchant of Death is Dead” – so he decided to force the world to remember him positively by setting up a prestigious award in his own name. (I’d probably take being called “the Merchant of Death” personally, too.)

Fun Fact: Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel prize, the first person to win two Nobel prizes, and more importantly she is still only one of two people to win the prize in two different categories. Talk about setting the bar high, Marie!

You’re probably wondering ‘what the heck does this have to do with little blue pills that make penises stand up to attention?’

Trust me, I’m getting there…

Ok, so Alfred Nobel had angina, which is a heart condition caused by not enough blood getting through the arteries of the heart. Do you know what a common treatment for angina is? DYNAMITE! Or, rather, small doses of nitroglycerin, which can be used to dilate the arteries of the heart, and thus let more blood through.

Now it gets better: during the 80s some guys (Furchgott, Ignarro, and Murad) figured out how nitroglycerin was making arteries expand like that, which opened up the way for drug companies to make better, more effective angina drugs.

Fun Fact: The second person to win the Nobel prize in two categories is Linus Pauling, who won the prize for Chemistry in 1954, and then won the Peace prize in 1962 for his anti-nuke activism

Here’s the fun part: one of the drugs tested was completely useless at treating heart disease…but did cause some other, extremely interesting side-effects. It turned out that this particular drug was causing arteries to expand, just not where the researchers hoped that it would. Instead of opening up the arteries of the heart, this new pill opened the arteries in the penis, giving the patients in the drug trial frequent erections. And that little drug grew up to be Viagra! 

What a bittersweet moment; you’ve failed to cure heart disease, but you’ve accidentally found the first effective treatment for impotency! Because the drug is so specific to the arteries in the penis, it’s safe to take even if you have a heart problem – which is lucky because the people most in need of an erectile dysfunction drug are the same people that need to look after their tickers: older men.

I think I’d be a little disappointed if I set out with the noble (get it?) goal of saving the lives of angina patients, only to end up being responsible for what is possibly the most joked-about drug on the market. But, hey, I bet they have more than enough money to drown their sorrows in.

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