History of Aspirin: Origin & Discovery

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Pain, fever, inflammation, tons of product, thousands of years of history, a small little white pill. What do these things all have in common? Aspirin! Find out about the origin and discovery of this wonder drug.

What Does Aspirin Do?

What drug is used by more people than any other throughout the world? Here's a hint. This is a drug that helps to relieve mild pain, fever, and inflammation. It's also used to help minimize the risk of clot formation and thus heart attacks and stroke. Sounds like a miracle drug that can do it all, right? Well, it's actually real, and it's called aspirin, or its more technical name, acetylsalicylic acid (ASA).

Let's learn about this amazing compound's origins and discovery.

Early History

Around 4000 BC, the people of the Assyrian civilization knew that extracts derived from the willow plant's leaves could ease joint pain and aid in fever reduction. The Sumerians knew this as well, at least as far back as 3500 BC. The ancient Egyptian Ebers Papyrus indicated that ancient Egyptians used extracts from the willow plant as an anti-inflammatory and pain reliever around 1300-1500 BC. This knowledge spread around the world to the Babylonians around 600 BC, to the Chinese around 500 BC, and to the ancient Greeks around 400 BC, including the father of medicine, Hippocrates. In sum, the ancient world was well aware that something in this plant could help relieve pain, fever, and inflammation.

A page from the Ebers papyrus
Ebers papyrus

It wasn't until the middle of the 18th century that an English Reverend by the name of Edward Stone performed what can be considered a clinical trial of the willow bark. In order to test the claim that something in this tree could, in fact, help reduce fever and minimize pain, he ground up a bunch of willow bark and administered it to those who suffered from either. By doing so, he was able to show that something in the willow tree could help treat these symptoms.

Modern History

By the early 19th century, the race was on to figure out the active ingredient found within the willow that helped relieve all of these symptoms. In 1828, a professor of pharmacology at Germany's Munich University by the name of Johann Buchner managed to extract, refine, and thus isolate the willow plant's active ingredient. He called this compound salicin after 'salix', the Latin term for willow. Just a short year later, French pharmacist Henri Leroux improved the extraction process of salicin. Then, in 1838, Italian chemist Raffaele Piria figured out the chemical structure of salicin was a glycosidic salicyl alcohol. He then turned the salicin into a stronger compound and named it salicylic acid. In the 1850s, a professor at Montpellier University, French chemist Charles Gerhardt, resolved the chemical structure of salicylic acid and from there developed acetylsalicylic acid.

The problem at this time was that Gerhardt's production was of no interest to anyone due to its impurities and its unstable chemical nature. The other problem was that salicin-based compounds had a lot of negative side effects, like gastric irritation. In the coming years, Germans Friedrich Bayer and Johann Friedrich Weskott established what is today the Bayer pharmaceutical company. In the late 1890s, German chemist Felix Hoffmann managed to isolate acetylsalicylic acid in a pure and stable form, thereby helping to reduce the side effects associated with salicylic acid.

Felix Hoffmann

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