The History of Aspirin


Headache, fever, or just simple malaises, the cure is often to take a couple of aspirins. Aspirins seem harmless enough; many people take them on a daily basis. Heart attack patients are often required to take a Bayer aspirin as a preventative measure. But how did aspirins come to be our everyday pain reliever?

Physicians in ancient times would recommend a powder made from the bark of the willow tree. Scientists now realize that the bark of that tree contained salicylic compound. Salicylic compound is chemically similar to aspirin but can cause greater stomach irritation and bleeding.

Aspirin Acetylsalicylic Acid

Aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid, is the man-made version of the medicine retrieved from the tree bark of the Willow tree. It is currently the world’s most used painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug. Aspirin was first prepared in France in 1853 and then promptly forgotten for over forty years. It was only rediscovered when a German chemist, Felix Hoffman, searched for something to ease his father’s rheumatoid arthritis.

Another German chemist, Frederick von Gerhardt worked in a laboratory at the University of Montpellier in 1853 and had synthesized acetylsalicylic acid but he really did feel that it was better than salicin, the pain reliever from the tree bark that was being used. So the aspirin was basically ignored and the salicin continued to be the pain reliever used.

Then in 1893 while Felix Hoffman worked at the Farbenfabriken Bayer drug firm, he tried to find something to ease his father’s pain. He had exhausted all the known drugs but his father’s distress wasn’t relieved. Hoffman was familiar with the synthetic type of salicin, acetylsalicylic acid, and took a batch home to see if it would help his father. To his amazement, the man-made derivative palliated all of the crippling symptoms and almost completely alleviated the pain.

Felix Hoffman and his Search for Pain Killers

Hoffman shared his findings with the other chemist at Bayer and the chemists realized that Hoffman had hit on a breakthrough. Because the chemist decided to make the drug from the meadow sweet plant, Spiraea Ulmaria, they called it Aspirin. They took the a form acetyl and the spir from the Latin Spiraea. They added in because it was a popular suffix for medications.

Aspirin was first marketed in 1899 as a loose powder. It quickly became the world’s most prescribed drug. Bayer introduced tablets in 1915. Since the German – based firm owed the trademark Aspirin at the start of World War I, the name became part of the war preparations demanded by the Allies. In June of 1919, due to the Treaty of Versailles, German surrenders the brand name to France, England, Russia, and the United States.

Aspirin and the Court Case of 1921

Until 1921 the brand name was kept in a heated battle between various drug companies. It wasn’t until Judge Learned Hand ruled at the end of that year that since the drug was universally known as Aspirin that no manufacturer could own the name or collect royalties for its use. On that day Aspirin became just aspirin, no capital letter or ownership. Even today almost a hundred years since the debate, scientists are still puzzled as to how the drug achieves the many effects of painkiller, fever reducer, and even anti-inflammatory properties.

So the next time you reach for that bottle of aspirin think about the Willow tree and the bark that brought it to your medicine cabinet.