Aspirin created: Aug. 10, 1897
Felix Hoffman, a German chemist motivated by his father’s constant pain from rheumatoid arthritis, becomes the first to create a stable form of a drug called acetylsalicylic acid. Two years later, it will be patented under its more familiar name—Aspirin.
Hoffman’s invention was a big leap forward in pain relief. Earlier in the 19th century, scientists had identified salicyclic acid as the ingredient that had for centuries made willow bark one of the more popular treatments for pain and fever. But it had a terrible taste and could damage a patient’s stomach. Hoffman’s drug was safer, more palatable and, just as importantly, able to be mass-produced. That same August, Hoffman synthesized another new pain-relieving medication that the company hoped will become a non-addictive replacement for morphine. Marketed to suppress heavy coughs and relieve the pain of childbirth, Bayer named it Heroin.
Ironically, Hoffman’s superiors at Bayer believed Heroin had much more potential than Aspirin. By 1899, the company was producing about a ton a heroin a year and exporting the drug to 23 countries. It really caught on in the U.S., where there was a large population of morphine addicts—many as a result of wounds from the Civil War--along with a booming market for patent medicines. Soon, manufacturers of cough syrup were lacing their products with Bayer heroin.
For years, it was widely used as an effective cough suppressant, one that was celebrated because it supposedly wasn’t habit-forming. But after more and more cases of Heroin addiction were reported, Bayer stopped producing it in 1913. Meanwhile, Aspirin continued to grow in popularity, particularly after it became a pill that could be bought over the counter in 1915. Previously, it could be sold only in powder form, a gram at a time, and only with a prescription.
A few years later, the devastating flu pandemic started spreading around the world, sending sales of Aspirin skyrocketing. After World War I, however, Bayer was forced to sell its overseas properties as part of the reparations imposed on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. Bayer lost its trademark and Aspirin became the more generic “aspirin.”
Another chapter of the aspirin story unfolded after World War II. In 1949, three years after Hoffman’s death. Arthur Eichengrun, a more senior scientist at Bayer when Hoffman made his discovery, released a paper saying that Hoffman had been working under his direction and that he, Eichengrun, had pushed senior executives at the company to support Aspirin. The speculation was that Eichengrun was not given credit for his role in the development of Aspirin because he was Jewish. (During World War II, he spent a year and a half in a concentration camp.) As recently as 1999, a research paper supported Eichengrun’s story, but Bayer has stuck with the version in which Hoffman receives sole credit as its creator.
Aspirin’s dominance as an over-the-counter painkiller began to fade in the 1960s, particularly when ibuprofen hit the market. But it began a comeback the next decade when clinical trials showed that aspirin could lower the risk of strokes and heart attacks, and doctors began recommending an aspirin a day as wise preventive medicine. Studies have also shown that long-term aspirin use can reduce the risk of death from colon cancer by as much as 40 percent. Today, 70 million pounds of aspirin are produced around the world. Americans alone consume more than 15 billion tablets per year.
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