Clinical trials and the origins of pharmaceutical fraud: Parke, Davis & Company, virtue epistemology, and the history of the fundamental antagonism

Joseph M. Gabriel, Bennett Holman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper describes one possible origin point for fraudulent behavior within the American pharmaceutical industry. We argue that during the late nineteenth century therapeutic reformers sought to promote both laboratory science and increasingly systematized forms of clinical experiment as a new basis for therapeutic knowledge. This process was intertwined with a transformation in the ethical framework in which medical science took place, one in which monopoly status was replaced by clinical utility as the primary arbiter of pharmaceutical legitimacy. This new framework fundamentally altered the set of epistemic virtues—a phrase we draw from the philosophical field of virtue epistemology—considered necessary to conduct reliable scientific inquiry regarding drugs. In doing so, it also made possible new forms of fraud in which newly emergent epistemic virtues were violated. To make this argument, we focus on the efforts of Francis E. Stewart and George S. Davis of Parke, Davis & Company. Therapeutic reformers within the pharmaceutical industry, such as Stewart and Davis, were an important part of the broader normative and epistemic transformation we describe in that they sought to promote laboratory science and systematized clinical trials toward the twin goals of improving pharmaceutical science and promoting their own commercial interests. Yet, as we suggest, Parke, Davis & Company also serves as an example of a company that violated the very norms that Stewart and Davis helped introduce. We thus seek to describe one possible origin point for the widespread fraudulent practices that now characterize the pharmaceutical industry. We also seek to describe an origin point for why we conceptualize such practices as fraudulent in the first place.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)533-558
Number of pages26
JournalHistory of Science
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2020 Dec

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2020.

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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