A Brief History
On March 6, 1899, the German chemical and pharmaceutical firm, Bayer AG, (the people that brought us “Heroin”) trademarked perhaps their greatest product, and perhaps the greatest medicine ever invented, Aspirin.
Founded by Friedrich Bayer and Johann Weskott in 1863, the big breakthrough for the company was the production of acetylsalicylic acid, the refinement of an age old remedy made from the bark of willow trees. Salicylic acid and various salicylate compounds from willow and other plants had been used for millennia to treat fever and other illnesses. Frenchman Charles Gerhardt had invented aspirin in 1853 when he treated sodium salicylate with acetyl chloride, producing acetylsalicylic acid. Various scientists experimented with the new chemical compound and devised more efficient means of production, but it was those at Bayer that came up with the medicinal use for the drug and trademarked the name, Aspirin.
Aspirin was used primarily as a fever and pain reducing agent, and later was found to have anti-clotting properties beneficial to patients prone to blood clots, preventing untold numbers of heart attacks and strokes. Bayer had almost instant success with their new product, but failed to protect the trademarked name, and the word “aspirin” became generic for acetylsalicylic acid (though Bayer retained “Aspirin” with a capital A as a trademark). Aspirin was virtually unchallenged as a pain and fever reducer until 1956 when acetaminophen (Tylenol and other brands) was invented, and ibuprofen (Advil et al) appeared in 1962. These new compounds cut into the sales of aspirin, but the development of aspirin for heart patients resulted in a new surge of sales in the 1970’s and since. Aspirin is often used post-surgery and can also prevent some cancers (notably colon cancer) Aspirin also has anti-inflammatory properties that are useful in treating sprains and some other injuries.
Aspirin is not without side effects, such as gastric distress and bleeding, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), skin swelling/allergic reaction, Reyes Syndrome (brain inflammation and even death in children or teens being treated for fever), and contraindications with certain other drugs. Most often these side effects are experienced only by people with a particular sensitivity to them or when aspirin is used in larger than recommended doses. It is possible to overdose on aspirin, either by long term overdosing or short term extreme overdose. Long term or chronic overdose can lead to a 25% mortality rate, especially among children, but the short term or acute overdose mortality rate is only 2%. Overall, aspirin is one of the safest drugs ever developed.
Today about 40,000 metric tons of aspirin are consumed worldwide each year, or put another way, between 50 billion and 120 billion pills per year! Safe and effective, aspirin is labeled by the World Health Organization as an Essential Medicine. Unfortunately, I could not find a reliable estimate of how many lives aspirin has saved over the years, but it is likely to be in the millions. Perhaps tens of thousands of lives per year just from preventative low doses to prevent strokes and heart attack, and for quick treatment of those maladies. Question for students (and subscribers): Would you consider aspirin to be the premier wonder drug of history? If not, what drug would you nominate as the most important or the Greatest Medicine Ever? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Jeffreys, Diarmuid. Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug. Bloomsbury USA, 2008.