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Aspirin discovered during experiment with waste product

Friedrich Bayer was born in 1825, the only son in a family of six children. His father was a weaver and dyer, and Bayer followed in his footsteps. In 1848, he opened his own dye business, which became very successful. In the past, all dyes had come from organic materials, but in 1856 coal tar dyes were discovered. Bayer and Friedrich Weskott, a master dyer, saw great potential in coal tar, and in 1863 they formed Friedrich Bayer et Compagnie to manufacture the dyes.

Hoffmann’s Aspirin
Bayer died on May 6, 1880, while the company was still in the fabric dye business. The company went on to employ chemists to come up with innovative dyes and products and in 1897 that’s exactly what one of the chemists, Felix Hoffmann, did. While experimenting with a waste product of one of the dye components to find relieve for his father’s rheumatism, Hoffmann chemically synthesised a stable form of salicylic acid powder. The compound became the active ingredient in a pharmaceutical wonder product: Aspirin. The title was named “a” from acetyl, and “spir” from the spirea plant, meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria, also known as Spiraea ulmaria), the source of salicin.

Already in use for the 3500 years
However, Hoffmann did not discover “aspirin.” He “rediscovered” it after studying experiments on acetylsalicylic acid made 40 years earlier by French chemist Charles Gergardt. In 1837, Gergardt produced good results, but the procedure was difficult and time consuming. He decided that it was not practical, and set it aside. But Gerhardt knew quite well about potential cures of acetylsalicylic acid because it had been proclaimed for more than 3 500 years!

In early-1800, German Egyptologist Georg Ebers bought papyruses from an Egyptian street vendor. The Ebers Papyrus, as they are known, contained a collection of 877 medicinal recipes from 2500 BC and recommended an infusion of dried myrtle leaves for rheumatic and back pain. Even in 400 BC Hippocrates of Kos, the father of all doctors, recommended a tea extract from the bark of the willow tree for fever, pain, and labour. The active substance in this juice, which does in fact ease pain, is, as we know today, salicylic acid. In China and Asia, and among North American Indians and the Hottentots of South Africa the beneficial effect of plants containing salicylic acid was known from early times.

The breakthrough
Although it relieved pain, the willow bark extract, salicylic acid, caused severe stomach and mouth irritation. Hoffmann’s breakthrough came on 10 August 1897 when he produced the first 100% chemically pure form of acetylsalicylic acid, thus without the free salicylic acid. On 6 March 1899, Bayer registered Aspirin as a trademark. Not without a challenge, though. In fact, initially it received trade certificates only in the US. In England and Germany, other companies challenged the patents, citing their own research. Hoffmann’s written evidence prevailed, and when he retired in 1928, Aspirin was known throughout the world. He, however, lived unrecognized until his death on 8 February 1946 in Switzerland.

Diacetylmorphine
Aspirin was Hoffmann’s most remarkable, but not his only success. A few days after he succeeded in synthesizing acetylsalicylic acid, he manufactured another compound for which the Bayer company had high hopes, but today finds dubious popularity: diacetylmorphine, or heroin, a substance obtained a few decades earlier by English chemist C.R.A. Wright. Heroin was prescribed cautiously during WWI but by 1931 it disappeared from medicine lists in almost all countries.

Felix Hoffmann

Felix Hoffmann, born in Ludwigsburg in 1868. He completed his pharmaceutical studies at Munich University, gaining a distinction. On 1 April 1894, he joined Friedrich Bayer & Co. After the discovery of pure acetylsalicylic acid he became head of the pharmaceutical department.

Friedrich Bayer

Friedrich Bayer‘s company initially produced only anilines. He died in 1880, unaware that Bayer was to become a pharmaceutical giant. By 1891, Bayer had introduced an assorted product range. Today, it has more than 10,000 products.

Aspirin had became known as a preventative medicine in the fight against heart attacks, strokes and, lately, cancer. It also went into space in the first-aid kit of the Apollo 11’s lunar module.

Scientists found that the part of willow bark that is bitter and good for pain is the chemical salicin. This chemical can be converted by the body after it is eaten to another chemical, salicylic acid. Aspirin is a member of this family of chemicals called salicylates. To find out how aspirin works, see How Stuff Works and visit the Aspirin Foundation

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