A Brief History of Aspirin: From Willow Bark to Wonder Drug

Updated on January 11, 2018
K S Lane profile image

K S Lane is a student of pharmacology and has a deep and passionate interest in all kinds of ailments and medications.

For hundreds of millions of people across the globe popping a tablet of Aspirin is a regular occurrence. But what exactly is in this miracle tablet? Who discovered it, and what kind of impact did it have on the field of medicine at the time? In this article I’m going to delve into some of the fascinating history surrounding the humble Aspirin tablet and track its journey from an ancient folk remedy to one of the most widely produced and consumed medicines on the market today.

Aspirin tablets are usually plain and unassuming, but there's more to the drug than meets the eye.
Aspirin tablets are usually plain and unassuming, but there's more to the drug than meets the eye. | Source

Where did it all begin?

The key ingredient in Asprin, Salicylic acid, was first used for medicinal properties by the Ancient Egyptians (you know, those guys that built the huge pyramids and worshipped cats). Salicylic acid is a chemical found in a specific genus of plants that includes beans, peas, clover and certain types of grasses and trees, most significantly the willow tree. The Egyptians would boil the bark of the willow and use it as a pain reliever, despite the drink’s nasty side effect of making you want to puke your guts out. Hippocrates (460 to 377BC) was also an advocate of this tea, and wrote about its medicinal properties. He’s now known as the father of modern medicine, so I guess he knew what he was talking about.

Who figured out how it actually works?

Hundreds of years after Hippocrates documented the effects of willow bark tea, 19th century scientists started to look for the key ingredient that caused the drink’s analgesic (pain relieving) effect. The first one to get it right was French pharmacist Henri Leroux, who isolated Salicylic acid as being the cause in 1829. Hermann Kolbe, a German chemist, later figured out how to synthesise salicylic acid in 1874 and immediately started doling it out to his patients. He found, however, that when it was administered patients experienced nausea and vomiting, which kind of makes sense, given that he purified the puke-inducing ingredient in willow bark tee and then gave huge doses of it to people. Some of his patients even went into a coma, which would be problematic in a scientific experiment today but back then was pretty much accepted as being an occupational hazard.

The chemical structure of Salicylic acid, Asprin's active ingredient.
The chemical structure of Salicylic acid, Asprin's active ingredient. | Source

Whose bright idea was it to turn it into a tablet?

The little white pill that we know and love came into being in the 1890s through the work of another German chemist (I guess there’s something in the water in Germany that breeds excellent chemists?) Felix Hoffmann. Hoffman figured out the solution to the nausea issue by adding an acetyl group to the salicylic acid. Basically, he stuck an extra couple of atoms on the end of a Salicylic acid molecule and hoped for the best. The Bayer institute, one of the largest pharmaceutical and life sciences companies in the modern world, quickly snapped up a patent on the new 'wonder drug,' as it was called all over the world, and began production. Soon the tablet was all over the world, and spurred an era of pharmaceutical research as other scientists and companies scrabbled to find a pill that would equal or trump the Asprin’s success.

Have any modifications been made to Aspirin over the years?

Very little changes have been made to Asprin since Hoffman’s first modifications. Asprin is still available in the same form as the tablets that were first churned out in the late 19th century. One development that has been made is the invention of soluble Asprin tablets. This was first done in 1900 by Bayer, and was an exciting discovery in itself as it was the first water-soluble tablet to be introduced to the market.

As you can see, Bayer are fully comfortable with using the term 'Wonder Drug' in relation to their own product. A tad big-headed, if you ask me, though Aspirin is pretty wondrous.
As you can see, Bayer are fully comfortable with using the term 'Wonder Drug' in relation to their own product. A tad big-headed, if you ask me, though Aspirin is pretty wondrous. | Source

Does Aspirin have any side-effects?

Despite its wondrous nature, Asprin isn’t perfect. Because it’s blood thinner it decreases clotting, which means that if you cut yourself while taking Aspirin you risk bleeding longer than usual. This is especially dangerous for people with Haemophilia, a blood disorder which further prevents clotting. Long term Asprin use can also cause stomach ulcers and gastrointestinal problems. Hopefully no other serious side effects are discovered, because if Asprin had to be pulled off shelves it would rock the Pharmaceutical industry to its core.

Where is Aspirin headed in the future?

Asprin’s use as a pain killer has started to dip in the past decade, given the rise of alternatives like Panadol, Nurofen and Advil. However, in the mid-20th century its secondary use as a blood thinner came to light and it is now regularly prescribed by doctors to people who have heart conditions. It can be further used to reduce fever and inflammation; it truly is a 'wonder drug!' Because of its many uses the humble tablet certainly isn’t going anywhere any time soon. It’s likely that it will remain a staple medicine for decades to come.

Despite its humble beginnings as, well, a tree, Aspirin is set to remain one of the most widely used medicines in the world.
Despite its humble beginnings as, well, a tree, Aspirin is set to remain one of the most widely used medicines in the world. | Source

In Summation

The Aspirin that we know and love has its roots way back in Ancient Egyptian times, where its active ingredient was used to make pain-relieving tea. After it was isolated and synthesised by a smart Frenchman and some smart Germans, and after the puking and coma issues were ironed out, it started being mass produced by the pharmaceutical company Bayer, who is still churning it out as you read this. Asprin is an often overlooked medicine in today’s world of patient-tailored drugs and mind blowing scientific research, but its creation left a mark on modern medicine that will never be wiped off.

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© 2017 K S Lane


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