Impotence (Erectile Dysfunction) History

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Erectile dysfunction has been a condition affecting men since ancient times.

Early treatments

The earliest attempts at treating this condition were in the medieval Islamic world by the Muslim physicians and pharmacists. These physicians were the first to prescribe medication for the treatment of this problem. They prescribed a single drug therapy for the condition or a combination of prescribed diet and drugs.

Apart from oral drugs they also tried local application of medication and application of drugs via the urethra. This was prevalent between the 9th and the 16th Century and some of the well known Muslim physicians and pharmacists include Muhammad ibn Zakarīya Rāzi, Thabit bin Qurra, Ibn Al-Jazzar, Avicenna ( who wrote the “The Canon of Medicine”), Averroes, Ibn al-Baitar, and Ibn al-Nafis (who wrote the “The Comprehensive Book on Medicine”).

Testosterone treatments

In the 1800’s sheep testis extract was injected as a source of testosterone to correct impotence. This was the standard until testosterone was purified in the 1940s.

Dr. John R. Brinkley

In the United States in the 1920s and 1930s Dr. John R. Brinkley attempted to cure the condition using medication. He recommended expensive goat gland implants and “mercurochrome” injections along with operations by surgeon Serge Voronoff. The Kansas State Medical Board revoked his medical license and Brinkley moved his operations over the Texas border to Mexico where he opened a medical clinic. He advertised for his methods on the radio as well.

Penile implants and vaccum pumps

In the 1970’s surgeons started providing patients with inflatable penile implants. In 1960 Geddings Osbon invented a device which he called the “YED” or “youth equivalence device”. It is still being used today as the vacuum pump for erectile dysfunction.

The development of medications to treat erectile dysfunction

All attempts to treat erectile dysfunction with medication failed till in 1983 British physiologist Giles Brindley, Ph.D. literally showed an American Urological Association audience the effect of phentolamine on inducing an erection. He had injected a non-specific vasodilator, an alpha-blocking agent in his own veins to cause corporal smooth muscle relaxation. This laid the path for the later development of oral agents that could lead to similar vasodilation and corporal smooth muscle relaxation in the penis leading to erection.

The discovery of viagra

Treatment of erectile dysfunction was revolutionized with the discovery of sildenafil or Viagra. Pfizer employees Peter Dunn and Albert Wood were portrayed as the as the inventors of sildenafil, now known as Viagra. They synthesized the drug in 1989, along with other Pfizer co-workers at the company’s Sandwich, Kent research facility in England. Andrew Bell, Dr. David Brown and Dr. Nicholas Terrett also aided in development of the molecule.

Terrett was named in the 1991 British patent for sildenafil as a heart medicine, and some experts consider him as the father of Viagra. Dunn and Wood however were responsible for bringing Viagra into its pill form.

Further Reading


Last Updated: Jun 21, 2023

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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