Right now, around the world, consumers could be walking into pharmacies and chemist shops and buying a product that boasts on its label that it is “The Wonder Drug”.
The product? Aspirin – specifically, Bayer aspirin.
Acetylsalicylic acid was first synthesised and buffered by French chemist Charles Gerhardt in 1853 and was marketed in the 1880s by the German company Merck, says Thijs Rinsema, writing in the journal Medical History.
However, the “proper history” of aspirin doesn’t begin until 1897, Rinsema says, when “this miracle among medicines” was again synthesised by chemists working for Friedrich Bayer and Friedrich von Hayden.
In a 1997 article on the centennial of aspirin’s discovery, the Washington Post called aspirin “one of the most widely used medications in the world. Each year, 58 billion doses of aspirin are swallowed, sipped in fizzling concoctions or taken in suppositories, according to the Bayer Company”.
Rinsema says “the story of aspirin is well known and has been told over and over again”. The main character, as he tells it, is Felix Hoffmann.
Born in Ludwigsburg, Germany, on 21 January 1868, Hoffmann studied chemistry and pharmacy at the University of Munich, graduated in 1891, and earned his doctorate two years later. In 1894 he went to work in the pharmaceutical research department of the Bayer Company.
Although Rinsema insists the aspirin story begins with Hoffmann, a 2014 article published by the Pharmaceutical Journal of Britain’s Royal Pharmaceutical Society, headlined “A pioneer in the development of aspirin”, starts with Edward Stone (1702–68), vicar of Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire.
The story goes that one day, while out walking, Stone “nibbled a piece of willow bark and was struck by its extreme bitterness. Knowing that cinchona bark, the source of quinine, was bitter, he guessed that willow bark might also have therapeutic properties.”
Stone believed that as part of God’s divine plan, the willow tree, which thrived in wet soils, could be useful in treating illnesses such as malarial fevers found in wet locales. He treated 50 “ague sufferers” with regular doses of powdered willow bark and “consistently found it to be ‘very efficacious in curing agues and intermitting disorders’.”
On 25 April 1763, Stone described the bark’s beneficial effects in a letter to the president of the Royal Society of London, the Earl of Macclesfield.
Almost as an afterthought, the Pharmaceutical Journal notes that Greek physician Hippocrates (440–377BCE) prescribed willow bark to reduce fever 2400 years ago.
The article points out that willow bark contains salicin, from which chemists such as Charles Gerhardt derived salicylaldehyde, salicylic acid, sodium salicylate and, finally, acetylsalicylic acid.
Which brings us back to Bayer.
In its online corporate history, Bayer tells how in 1897, in a laboratory in Wuppertal, Germany, “young scientist Dr Felix Hoffmann is the first to succeed in synthesising a chemically pure and stable form of acetylsalicylic acid, which becomes the active ingredient in Aspirin”, and which the company launches as a trademarked product in 1899.
It’s a good tale, and one that has near universal credence. Problem is, it has been suggested that it might not be true.
In 2000 The BMJ published “The discovery of aspirin: a reappraisal”, a paper by Walter Sneader, from Scotland’s University of Strathclyde.
Sneader describes how the Hoffmann discovery story wasn’t formally told until 1934, when Germany was in the grip of rising Nazi power. He lays out evidence that the real credit for the discovery of aspirin belongs to Arthur Eichengrun, a Jewish chemist who in 1944 had been interned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Sneader says Hoffmann was directed in his work for Bayer by Eichengrun, and that it was Eichengrun who pressed company managers to go forward with developing, testing and marketing the new drug.
But because Eichengrun was Jewish, his role in the discovery of aspirin had to be erased.
Fortunately, he survived the Nazi camp and after World War II produced the documentation used by Sneader to tell his story, which, it must be pointed out, remains in dispute.
Hoffmann, meanwhile, moved to his next project, which was to come up with a more palatable form of the opioid morphine. What he came up with was branded as Heroin and widely sold by Bayer and other companies to suppress coughs and relieve pain.
Hoffman never married. He died on 8 February 1946 in Switzerland.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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