The invention of modern-day erectile dysfunction treatments began in the late 1990’s, when Pfizer, researching hypertension, discovered its new medication sildenafil had an unexpected side effect. This drug was seen as a new and highly effective treatment for a condition that had little medicinal relief at that point. Since then, the effectiveness of Viagra has come to revolutionise the way we treat male impotence.

Before Viagra

The history of erectile dysfunction treatments goes back centuries, with many older methods causing enormous physical and psychological damage that was worse than the condition itself. Even in the decades leading up to the release of Viagra, treatment came with a comparatively high risk of side effects, including damage to the tissue in the penis from injections. Some methods, such as vacuum pumps, were relatively popular but could be cumbersome and inconvenient. 

Viagra’s side effects are usually relatively mild and it is easy and discreet to use. This, alongside its effectiveness, has led to the success and reputation it has today.

The invention and trials of sildenafil citrate

In 1989, two British scientists employed by Pfizer were working on a hypertension (high blood pressure) and angina medication, which was classified under the name UK-92480. It was patented in 1991 when early trials began, the results of which were largely disappointing. It became apparent, however, that patients were experiencing a significant increase in the amount of erections that they were reporting as a side effect.

Although these results were not expected, the way in which the drug worked, by increasing blood flow through the arteries, backed up much of the era’s understanding of the body’s biochemistry relating to erectile dysfunction. Pilot studies for its use on the condition soon followed and the drug was approved for prescribing in 1998.

The Viagra name

The name Viagra was thought to be coined because of its suggestion of virility, vitality and vigour. Some stories suggest it was also purposely named to rhyme with Niagra, which was thought to be synonymous with endurance and power. The drug’s active ingredient is named sildenafil citrate, which is the name for the generic version of Viagra.

Viagra’s success

Viagra’s effectiveness and the lack of other reliable erectile dysfunction medications led to it becoming well known in wider culture. Viagra has helped millions of men with erectile dysfunction since its introduction in 1998 and remains one of the foremost treatments for erectile dysfunction to this day. This is despite there being many different treatments manufactured since, beginning with tadalafil (Cialis) and vardenafil (Levitra) in 2003.

The end of Viagra’s patent

In June 2013 in the UK, Pfizer’s 15 year patent on Viagra came to an end. The end of the patent meant that other companies could now manufacture their own versions of the drug with its active ingredient sildenafil citrate, and market them. Pfizer reacted to this change by producing their own non-branded, generic version of the blue pill, halving its price in the process. In 2018 Pfizer also released Viagra Connect, essentially the same treatment as the original Viagra but only available in a 50mg dose.

Page last reviewed:  24/07/2020