I was reading “The Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis the other day. It’s about a pandemic and time travel to medieval times, not always the lightest read as you may imagine. At some point a young character made a remark about aspirin, thinking it was always there. But in truth, it was not.
Who invented Aspirin?
Everybody knows what aspirin is, of course: a white crystalline derivative C9H8O4 of salicylic acid used for relief of pain and fever, as Merriam-Webster explains it. Aspirin must be synthesized, it does not occur in nature.
There were organic compounds that were used before the invention of aspirin based on salicylic acids, like natural substances from Myrtle, willow, and meadowsweet. Their effects were documented, and some were used millennia ago. But from the plants to the extraction of the molecule that led to the creation of aspirin, it took a lot of time. In fact, it was not before the 19th century that organic chemistry became a discipline.
From the first failed attempts to extract pure salicin crystals from willow bark in 1828 to the realization that salicylates might have medical uses in 1876, science changed a lot. It was a time of progress and experimentation. And soon, it was time to discover how to make money with all those discoveries.
In 1886, the accidental discovery of the fever-reducing properties of acetanilide helped the German chemical industry to find a way to go: researching medicines derived from coal tar. Friedrich Bayer & Company took the lead under the direction of scientist Carl Duisberg. In fact, in 1890, Duisberg expanded the company’s drug research program. He wanted new drugs. University chemist Arthur Eichengrün was put in charge of the creative part of the operation and chemist Heinrich Dreser worked on the testing of drugs.
First Heroin, then Aspirin.
Young chemist Felix Hoffmann started to work in the pharmaceutical research department at the Bayer Company in Elberfeld. During those precarious times, scientists worked on instinct and Hoffmann was adding the acetyl group (CH3CO) to multiple molecules expecting to obtain better performances. That’s why, in 1897, he was instructed to do that with codeine. The result was diamorphine, a product that was more effective than morphine. It was then named Heroin and marketed as the non-addictive alternative to morphine. Of course, we know now that it was a lie, but for a long time, heroin was sold over the counter—until it was finally banned in 1925 by the League of Nations.
The success of heroin led Heinrich Dreser to push for more tests in order to explore the true potential of acetylsalicylic acids. That’s where Felix Hoffmann’s research in producing pure stable acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) paid off. He found a way to make his drug synthetically, a first. Dreser rapidly recognized the potential of Hoffman’s work and tried to patent it. The demand was rejected because acetylsalicylic acid had already been synthesized earlier by a French chemist and later by a German chemist. The difference was that Hoffmann’s method was producing it in a pure and stable form—that could be patented in the United States! That’s how aspirin became a worldwide sensation.
The Bayer Company rapidly gained a monopoly, being the only one to manufacture the drug from 1900 to 1917. The First World War put an end to that, as Bayer’s American plants were sold in 1919 as part of the reparations exacted from Germany. Sterling Products invested $3 million to acquire it but ultimately was unable to protect the trademark status of aspirin.
This story is probably not accurate. The invention of aspirin is a controversial one, as everybody wants credit for it. A lot of people are crediting Hoffman, others think Arthur Eichengrün, another Bayer employee who claimed before his death to be the real creator of aspirin, might have weight in the debate. In the end, only Heinrich Dreser made a fortune with it during that period.