It has long been called the “wonder drug.” No brand name has been so closely tied to the drug aspirin as Bayer, as demonstrated by this series of 1926 newspaper advertisements. Aspirin was promoted as a reliever of pain and fever, helping patients who suffer from colds, toothaches, sore throats, arthritis and many other maladies.
One of the tag lines in these ads, “Does Not Affect the Heart,” would later turn out to be false in at least one important sense. Low-dose aspirin is now used in some cases as a way to prevent heart attack and stroke, due to its blood-thinning properties.
The chemical ingredient in aspirin — acetylsalicylic acid — was synthesized by French chemist Charles Gerhardt in 1853. It is the key ingredient in willow tree bark, which has been used for more than three millennia to treat pain.
The exact history of the modern drug’s invention is mired in controversy, however. According to the book Aspirin: The Story of a Wonder Drug, a chemist named Arthur Eichengrün first administered aspirin to himself and arranged secret clinical trials in Berlin, Germany. Eichengrün, a chemist for the German conglomerate Bayer, coined the name “aspirin” in January 1899. Since salicylic acid can be obtained from the meadowsweet plant (genus name Spiraea), Eichengrün took part of the scientific plant name to coin an easy-to-remember term. Bayer patented aspirin in March 1899.
Bayer contends that Eichengrün’s younger colleague, Felix Hoffman, discovered the formula of aspirin that does not have the unpleasant gastric side effects. Others contend Hoffman did his work at Eichengrün’s direction.
“Eichengrün was excluded from the official version of Bayer’s history since 1934 because of his Jewish origin,” writes Diarmuid Jeffreys, author of Aspirin: The Story of a Wonder Drug. The book details Bayer’s sponsorship of experiments conducted by the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.
Bayer was forced to divest of the trademark for the name aspirin in the United States and some other countries after Germany’s defeat in World War I. So today aspirin is marketed in America by many companies. Worldwide, more than 120 billion aspirin tablets are consumed each year. That’s more than 40,000 metric tons of aspirin. In addition to its pain- and inflammation-relieving properties, aspirin is also used to help prevent diseases such as cancer.
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