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The Invention Of Aspirin

1800s | July 1, 2021

Aspirin tablets spilled from a bottle. (Chris Walton/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Since 1899, aspirin has been touted as a wonder drug, but people have been using a natural form of aspirin since at least 2500 B.C.E. Where does aspirin come from? What even is aspirin anyway?

Ancient Aspirin

Aspirin is made from salicylic acid, a substance found in trees and shrubs of the Spiraea species, which includes willows, meadowsweet, and myrtle. In fact, the name aspirin is derived from the word Spiraea. Ancient people quickly learned that chewing on some willow bark alleviated their aches and pains and tea made from it reduced fevers. The ancient Assyrians and Sumerians noted that myrtle and willow effectively treated rheumatic diseases like arthritis, and the physicians of ancient Egypt recommended willow bark for sore, swollen joints. The ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates himself (you know, the oath guy) acknowledged the bark and leaves of the willow tree as a remedy for fevers and aches. He even recommended it to ease the pain of childbirth.

Felix Hoffman. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Rediscovering Aspirin

In the mid-1700s, a cleric with the Church of England named Edward Stone rediscovered the medicinal properties of Spiraea derivatives. He is credited with identifying the active ingredient in the plant, salicylic acid, after creating a powder that cured headaches and other ailments. French pharmacist Henri Leroux became the first to isolate salicylic acid in 1829, but his product was strong and bitter, causing vomiting, nausea, and even bleeding and comas in his patients. Far too many years later—in 1897, to be precise—German chemists Felix Hoffmann and Arthur Eichengrun developed a method of turning salicylic acid into a milder chemical called acetylsalicylic acid.

Hoffmann and Eichengrun patented their process and marketed it to Bayer, who renamed the resulting medicine "Aspirin," though the company lost its trademark during World War I when their assets were seized by the Allied forces. First packaged in powder form but transforming into the familiar pill by 1915, aspirin was touted as a new wonder drug, recommended by doctors for everything from menstrual cramps to toothaches.

Grigori Rasputin. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Modern Aspirin

Of course, we know that some things are too good to be true. While aspirin has many beneficial uses, it can also cause bleeding in the stomach, intestinal tract, and brain. That wasn't known until doctors treating the young son of Czar Nicholas of Russia, Alexei Romanov, suggested aspirin for his hemophilia. As you can imagine, it did the opposite of help, so the Czarina ditched the doctors in favor of her guru, the mystic healer Rasputin. After he told her to stop using aspirin and adopt a regimen of spiritual healing, she credited Rasputin's unorthodox approach for the child's improvement, but it was probably just the aspirin part.

The benefits of aspirin are still revealing themselves. In 1948, American physician and researcher Dr. Lawrence Craven suggested that aspirin was beneficial for heart patients, and nearly 40 years later, the Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to a team of researchers who demonstrated aspirin's inhibition of the body's ability to produce prostaglandins, a hormone that forms clots that can lead to heart attacks. Today, aspirin is used to prevent heart disease, colorectal cancer, and strokes as well as for pain relief and fever reduction. Not bad for a tree.

Tags: 1800s | medicine | science

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.