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Narratives from the Past - The History of Aspirin

Ross Brown
From a Pharmacy Heritage Perspective

Issue 70: April 2008
Page: 1 of 1 Author's Profile | Send to a Friend | Printer Version

Editor's Note: When trawling through the website of the Pharmaceutical Society in October 2007, I found a reference to The Australian Academy of the History of Pharmacy.
My immediate thoughts were that this organisation did not appear to have a great degree of exposure and that there may be an opportunity to explore whether there were any lessons from history that might have application in today's pharmacy environment.
I immediately contacted the organisation and eventually a column written by Ross Brown, the president of the Academy, turned up.
Ross is a well-known pharmacy identity and has worn many "hats" over his pharmacy career, and we are delighted to have him as a contributor to i2P.
For his first contribution, Ross discusses the history of aspirin, a most important drug that has been in continuous use since its discovery.

In 1863 a dynamic German merchant called Fredrich Bayer (1825-1876) set up a factory in Elberfeld to exploit new chemical procedures for making colourful dyes from coal tar.
German coal tar manufacture expanded rapidly surpassing English or French production six-fold by the mid 1870s.
In the mid 1880s however, price conventions and raw material availability deteriorated in the German dye industry, so the Bayer Company invested in scientific research to diversify its product range, and Bayer focused on medicinals.

One employee, Felix Hoffman in 1897, synthesised a stable form of Acetylsalicylic Acid powder to help prevent his father's arthritis pain.
It was called Aspirin, "A" from Acetyl. "Spir" from spirea plant which yields Salicin and "in" a common suffix for medication.

The Greek physician Hippocrates prescribed the bark and leaves of the willow tree rich in Salicin, to relieve pain and fever.
Throughout the ages willow leaves have been used to reduce pain and inflammation.
In 1829 a bitter Glycoside called Salacin was isolated from willow bark by Leroux and shown to have antipyretic activity.
In 1853 Salicylic Acid was made from Salicin by French scientists but was found to irritate the gut.
In 1875 the better tolerated Sodium Salicylate was being used to treat rheumatic fever and then gout.

On the 10th August 1897 Felix Hoffman's discovery of a stable form of Acetylsalicylic Acid powder represented a major breakthrough in the development of this important pharmaceutical.

On 6th March 1899 Bayer patented Aspirin in Berlin.
The first Aspirin product was initially distributed to physicians to give to their patients in a powder form.
During1900 Bayer introduced the first Aspirin soluble-in-water tablets.
The outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 saw international trade in pharmaceuticals interrupted and by 1915 Aspirin became available without a prescription.

In 1917 the patent on Acetylsalicylic acid expired and the product became freely available.
By 1948 Lawrence Craven a Californian GP noticed that 400 men for whom he prescribed Aspirin, had not suffered any heart attacks and in 1950 Aspirin had its name in the Guinness Book of Records as the most popular pain reliever throughout history.

Quite an achievement.

The narrative of the last half century will be continued in the next issue of Pharmacy History Australia.

A note for Pharmacy Australia Congress - PAC
This year the Pharmacy Australia Congress will be held in Perth WA 24-26 October 2008.
Our history session will be held on the Saturday afternoon of 25 October.
We have arranged an excellent program for you, so I extend a cordial invitation to you and do hope you can attend.
Looking forward to seeing you in Perth on 25 October 2008.

Ross Brown - President

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