The Invention Of Aspirin

By | June 27, 2021

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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.

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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.