Aspirin: Turn of the Century Miracle Drug

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An early advertisement for Bayer aspirin. (Bayer AG)

Headache? Fever? Muscle pain?
“Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”

Like most of us, when you experience everyday aches and pains, a bottle of aspirin is probably the first thing you reach for. Yet, while aspirin has been one of the most popular pharmaceutical agents of the past one hundred years, it is actually a synthetic derivative of the natural substance salicylic acid—the associated healing properties of which have been known for millennia.

Salicylic acid is a main component of an herbal extract found in the bark of a number of trees, including the willow tree, and in a number of fruits, grains, and vegetables. As such, salicylic acid—and related salicylates—have long been common components of a normal human diet, functioning as a natural defense against what we consider common ailments today.

The first recorded use of salicylates dates back about 4,000 years to the Sumerians, who noted the pain remedies of the willow tree on early clay tablets. Ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia used the extract from willow trees to treat fever, pain, and inflammation. Both Chinese and Greek civilizations employed willow bark for medical use more than 2,000 years ago, and the Chinese also used poplar bark and willow shoots to treat rheumatic fever, colds, hemorrhages, and goiter. One of the most noteworthy reports of the use of salicylic acid comes from the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates (460–370 BCE). He recommended chewing on willow-tree bark to patients suffering from fever and pain, as well as the use of a tea brewed from willow bark given to women to lessen pain during childbirth. Around 100 CE the Greek physician Dioscorides prescribed willow bark as an anti-inflammatory agent.

Despite this long history, it was not until 1763 that the Reverend Edward Stone of the Royal Society of London conducted one of the first clinical studies on the effects of willow-bark powder by treating patients suffering from ague (a fever thought to be caused by malaria). And approximately 100 years later the Scottish physician Thomas MacLagan studied the effects of willow powder on patients suffering from acute rheumatism, demonstrating that it could relieve fever and joint inflammation.

The chemical investigation of the healing properties of the substance within the willow bark had already begun in earnest, however, during the early 19th century. This investigation was driven in part by Napoleon’s continental blockade on imports, which affected suppliers of Peruvian cinchona-tree bark (another natural source of salicylic acid). In 1828 Johann Büchner, a professor at the University of Munich, isolated a yellow substance from the tannins of willow trees that he named salicin, the Latin word for willow. A pure crystalline form of salicin was isolated in 1829 by Henri Leroux, a French pharmacist, who then used it to treat rheumatism. In the late 1800s large-scale production of salicylic acid for the treatment of pain and fever was initiated by the Heyden Chemical Company in Germany.