Aspirin is born: March 6, 1899

The Friedrich Bayer & Co., long a German dye manufacturer, ensures its place as a leader in the budding pharmaceutical industry when the Imperial Patent Office in Berlin registers acetylsalicylic acid under the trademark “Aspirin.”

Much earlier in the 19th century, scientists had identified salicylic acid as the ingredient that, for centuries, had made willow bark one of the more popular treatments for pain and fever.  But it had a terrible taste and tended to damage a patient’s stomach.  In the fall of 1897, however, a chemist in Bayer’s lab named Felix Hoffman had been able to create a stable form of the drug, one that is safer, more palatable and just as importantly, able to be mass produced.  Bayer names it Aspirin. (As it turned out, Hoffman perfected another drug that same month, one that executives at Bayer felt had much more potential than aspirin. It was a medication designed to be a non-addictive replacement for morphine and marketed to suppress heavy coughs and relieve the pain of childbirth.  Bayer named it heroin.)

Initially, Aspirin is sold in powder form, a gram at a time, and only through prescriptions.  In 1915, though, it becomes available as a pill that can be bought over the counter.  A few years later, a devastating flu pandemic starts spreading around the world, sending sales of Aspirin skyrocketing.  After World War I, however, Bayer is forced to sell its overseas properties as part of Germany’s war reparations, and Bayer loses its trademark.  Aspirin becomes 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 had 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 is aspirin’s sole 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.