It did. And it saved millions of lives.
If there was a defining moment in the history of the pharma industry, it might be when Bayer scientists developed Prontosil in the early 1930s. Before then, bacterial infections were quite often a death sentence, even for the president’s son.
The German scientist’s didn’t understand the mechanism by which Prontosil worked, attributing it to the aniline dyes that they started with (scientists had been intrigued by how dyes can color specific parts of a cell and they thought to capitalize on that feature, borrowing from Germany’s lead in dye chemistry). Scientists at the Pasteur Institute figured out that sulfa was the active ingredient and the drug took off in Europe.
With the saving of yet another president’s son’s life using Prontisil, sulfa based drugs took off in the USA as well.
This drug, and efforts to identify its mechanisms, helped form establish the animal testing procedures used today, as well as to sharpen many other scientific techniques used in the pharma industry.
Finally, the discovery of sulfa set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the Elixir Sulfanilamide disaster in 1937.
That episode, where the Massengill corporation produced a sweet sulfa-based syrup using industrial solvents, resulted in about 100 deaths, mostly children and the poor. This event provided the impetus for sweeping changes in the FDA’s powers, forming the guidelines of the industry that we know today.
From that point forward, pharma companies were eagerly seeking out the next big thing, using the scientific method, animal testing, and proper clinical trials to prove safety and efficacy.
As for the millions of lives? Even though penicillin was discovered before sulfa, it was much more difficult to produce.
Most infections in WWII were treated with sulfa. Millions of injured soldiers owe their lives to the sulfa powder that was poured into their wounds.