A history of... GlaxoSmithKline


Hannah Blake


Two years ago, we ran a series called ‘A history of...’, which took an in-depth look at the history of the pharmaceutical industry and some of the top pharma companies. Assistant Editor, Hannah Blake, picks this series back up, starting here with the history of GlaxoSmithKline.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is a science-led global healthcare company, which headquarters in the UK and has offices in over 100 countries around the world, such as the USA, Spain, Belgium and China.

GSK’s mission is “to improve the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer. But GSK didn’t start overnight – like many well-known companies, it took many years, a lot of hard work and a number of different name changes, before it became the GSK we know today.

So how did this pharmaceutical company become so successful?

The beginning – the first of many firsts

The story starts in 1830, when a man called John K Smith opened his first drugstore in Philadelphia, USA, and sold drugs, paint, varnish and window glass. Eleven years later, John retired and his son George took on the company, which then became John K Smith &amp, Co.

Mahlon Kline joined Smith and Shoemaker (as it had become by 1865) as a bookkeeper, after studying business at college. Throughout the next ten years, Mahlon took on additional responsibilities within the company and was rewarded when the company was renamed as Smith, Kline and Company.


"GSK didn’t start overnight – like many well-known companies, it took many years, a lot of hard work and a number of different name changes…"


Around the same time, Thomas Beecham launched the Beecham’s Pills laxative business in England. In 1859, Beecham opened a factory in St Helens, which was the world’s first factory to be built solely for making medicines. This wasn’t the only first – in 1887, Beecham’s factory was the first in the area to have electricity.

Meanwhile in New Zealand, Englishman Joseph Nathan establishes a general trading company called Joseph Nathan &amp, Co. By 1904, the company began exporting dried milk powder to London, which was trademarked as Glaxo two years later. In 1908, the Glaxo department of Joseph Nathan &amp, Co opened in London.

Back in the USA, Smith Kline and Company increased its portfolio of consumer brands by acquiring French, Richards and Company. In 1910, a range of iron tablets, lozenges and poison ivy lotion, called the Blue Line, was added to the company – then called Smith, Kline and French. Nine years later, Mahlon Kline began sending pharmaceutical samples through the mail to doctors across the US.

Glaxo’s first pharmaceutical product was the vitamin D preparation, Ostelin, in 1924. The company built new research facilities in 1935, called Glaxo Laboratories, which absorbed Joseph Nathan &amp, Co in 1947. In the same year, Glaxo was listed for the first time on the London Stock Exchange.

The middle – merging many into one

The 1950s signified a revolution in the treatment of mental illness, after Smith, Kline and French introduced the anti-psychotic drug, thorazine (chlorpromazine). This drug was the product of reference in the first generation of central nervous system drugs. In 1969, Smith, Kline and French entered the clinical laboratories business and purchased seven laboratories in the US and one in Canada.

Between 1938 and 1972, Beecham (formerly Beecham’s Pills) acquired products still well-known today, such as Macleans toothpaste, Lucozade energy-replacement drinks and men’s hair application, Brylcreem. The company also began a pharmaceutical research lab, called Beecham Research Laboratories and in 1945, the companies, along with an allergy vaccines company, merged into one – the Beecham Group plc.

In 1972, Beecham Group plc was unsuccessful in its bid for Glaxo Group Ltd – and Glaxo was unsuccessful in its attempt to merge with UK chemists Boots.

Glaxo’s business in the US began a few years later, as Glaxo Inc, through the acquisition of Meyer Laboratories Inc. Glaxo launched anti-ulcer treatment, Zantac (ranitidine) in 1981 and becomes the world’s top-selling medicine by 1986. Smith, Kline, French, meanwhile, became the SmithKline Corporation in 1976, and then SmithKline Beckman in 1982, after merging with diagnostics company, Beckman Instruments.

SmithKline Beecham plc was formed in 1989, following the merger of SmithKline Beckman and the Beecham Group plc.


"Glaxo’s first pharmaceutical product was the vitamin D preparation, Ostelin, in 1924."


Four years later, in 1993, SmithKline Beecham negotiated a multi-million dollar research collaboration agreement with Human Genome Science, to identify and describe the functions of the genes in the human body. Around the same time, Glaxo merged with Wellcome, a company established in the nineteenth century and built up since, to become Glaxo Wellcome. The Queen opens Glaxo Wellcome’s Medicines Research Centre in Stevenage.

SmithKline Beecham also collaborated with the World Health Organisation in 1998, to eliminate lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis) by the year 2020. In 1999, the company launched Avandia (rosiglitazone maleate), for the treatment of type2 diabetes, in the US.

The GSK we know today

It would have made chronological sense to name this chapter, ‘The End’, but it’s fair to say that GSK will continue to grow and develop, and no one knows if this will bring further name changes and directions. But anyway, back to the story…

In 2000, the year of the millennium, Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham merged to form the name we know today, GlaxoSmithKline.

Since then, GSK has continued to work with other organisations to fight some of the biggest diseases around the world.

In the same year as the merger, GSK made a pledge that it would provide three HIV / AIDS medicines to developing country governments at significant price reductions. By the end of 2002, GSK had secured 120 arrangements to supply these medicines to 50 of the world’s poorest country and in 2004, it shipped 33 million tablets of HIV treatment, combivir, to Africa.


"Since then, GSK has continued to work with other organisations to fight some of the biggest diseases around the world."


GSK launched the African Malaria Partnership in 2001, boosting the global awareness of the disease that kills over one million people every year. Bill Gates, founder of the Bill &amp, Melinda Gates Foundation highlights GSK in recognition of the company’s commitment to R&amp,D on malaria, five years later in 2005.

The company has also continued to work with the WHO in its fight to combat lymphatic filariasis, and even donated the first 100 million of its albendazole tablets. On th July 2003, ten million people in Sri Lanka received these free doses. By the end of 2006, GSK had donated 600 million treatments, and found itself as the recipient of the New Business Award.

GSK has also been on hand when natural disasters have struck, donating medicines and vaccines following the Tsunami disaster of December 2004, after the damage caused in the USA by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and also following the Haiti earthquake in 2010.

Andrew Witty succeeded JP Garnier as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in 2008.

Over the years, GSK has continued to research and develop new treatments and acquire new products. From cervical cancer vaccine, cervarix, to the first-ever FDA-approved obesity treatment, alli, to the oral treatment, requip XL, for Parkinson’s disease, GSK has been at the forefront of providing medicines to billions of people across the globe since its humble beginnings in the 19th century.

However, things haven’t always gone to plan. In July 2012, GSK was fined US $3 billion in the biggest healthcare fraud case in history, after promoting two antidepressant drugs for unapproved uses.


"GSK has also been on hand when natural disasters have struck, donating medicines and vaccines…"


In what some might say as ironic, two weeks later GSK were named as the Official Laboratory Services Provider for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Following the Games, the facility will become the UK’s first phenome-research centre.

As of July 6th 2012, GSK had the fifth-largest market capitalisation on the London Stock Exchange with a total of £74.8 billion. GSK’s primary listing is on the London Stock Exchange, but it also has a secondary listing on the New York Stock Exchange.

So, what’s next?

It’s hard for anyone to predict the future, but during the early 2000’s, GSK began many long-term projects and collaborations, which will most likely begin to yield results in the next decade or so.

Advances in technology will also continue to pressure GSK, and other pharmaceutical companies, into finding more sufficient treatments and vaccines. In 2011, nearly £600 million was invested into the R&amp,D of vaccines by GSK and over 1,600 scientists are currently working on the development of vaccines alone, with a further 12,500 people working in research teams in the UK, USA, Spain, Belgium and China to develop treatments.

GSK also has a long-term vision to make its entire value chain carbon neutral by 2050.






Previous ‘A history of...’ articles:

A history of the pharmaceutical industry

A history of Amgen

A history of Pfizer

A history of contract research organisations (CROs)

The next ‘A history of...’ article will be published on the 27th September.



About the author:

Hannah joined pharmaphorum in early 2012, after graduating with a degree in Magazine Journalism &amp, Feature Writing in 2011, and leads our news coverage, in addition to liaising with new and existing feature authors. With over three years’ experience working within the journalism industry alongside university, Hannah has written for a number of different print and online publications, within the women’s lifestyle, travel and celebrity sectors. Now focussed on the pharma sector with her role at pharmaphorum, Hannah is embracing the challenges of working within a fast growing media organisation in this rapidly changing industry sector.

For any queries or contribution suggestions, please contact her here or via Twitter @Hannah_Blake2.

What do you think is next for GSK?

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3 September, 2012