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Where did Aspirin come from?

Where did Aspirin come from? Aspirin's history is a lengthy one, from its discovery in the fifth century BC, to its use as a bartering tool in World War I, to its newly discovered benefits and uses.

A person could get a headache thinking about all of the detours aspirin has taken on the road to becoming today's common, inexpensive, cure-all medication.

Aspirin's roots are deep, and reach back to Hippocrates himself, the Greek father of modern medicine, who held the recipe for a pain reliever and fever reducer made from the bark and leaves of the willow tree. The key the Greek father of modern medicine held from sometime between 460 and 377 BC, was buried with him, and was not rediscovered until 1758 by an English clergyman.

Scientists, now aware of the pain relieving properties of willow bark, struggled to strip it down to the exact ingredient responsible for its powers, and finally did so in the 1820s. They narrowed their search to salicin, an early form of the family of drugs named salicylates, of which aspirin is a member.

Severe stomach upset from the salicylic acid extracted willow bark posed a problem for scientists. They attempted to remedy this side effect by combining the acid with sodium to neutralize the acid, but it failed to reduce the belly aching.

A French chemist, Charles Frederic Gerhardt put an end to the dilemma in 1853, by adding acetyl chloride to the sodium salicylate mixture. He published the results of his findings, but did not pursue his creation past this point, even though it upset the stomach less than the currently available compound. Mr. Gerhardt saw no future in the time-consuming preparation of his recipe, which he felt did not improve much upon the original medicine. His decision left people grabbing their guts, and stomaching the old standby, sodium salicylate.

Salvation came in 1897, in the person of an eager, young Felix Hoffman, who sought, and found, a drug to help relieve the painful symptoms of his father's arthritis. This driven chemist, an employee of the Bayer Company, found and dusted off Gerhardt's old publication, mixed a batch of the recipe, and discovered that it actually worked.

Hoffman used his connection with his employer to pitch his idea, and Bayer reluctantly agreed to produce the medicine they named Aspirin. They invented the name Aspirin by combining the initials A from acetyl chloride, the SPIR from the plant they extracted the salicylic acid from, Spirae ulmaria, and the IN, because it was the common ending for medications at that time. Bayer launched Aspirin in powder form and as a tablet in 1915. Aspirin was an instant success.

Aspirin's success ended up costing the Bayer Company a great deal of money, when the U.S., England, France, and Russia forced it to surrender the trademark to them, as part of Germany's war reparations at the close of World War I. Bayer gave up the trademark in 1919, as part of the Treaty of Versailles, which explains why the aspirin, stripped of its trademark, is now written in the lower case.

Today, aspirin holds the title of being the most widely used drug, one that is no longer solely used as a pain reliever and as a fever reducer. Physicians have shown aspirin to be effective in combating arthritis pain, in reducing the risk of heart disease, of death following a heart attack, of cancer, if taken two times weekly, and of developing preeclampsia during pregnancy. It is doubtful that aspirin will ever again be lost to the annals of history.

Did you know?
  • Bayer also held, and had to give up, its trademark to heroin at the end of World War I?

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