Painkillers in one form or another have been around for as long as humans have been nibbling on random plants and herbs, but the history of aspirin tells the tale of one of the most enduring medications. It’s all about a specific compound – salicin – and how scientists transformed it into the pill we know today.
Weeping? Try some willow
Salicin comes from the bark of Salix species willow trees. Humans quickly figured out the powers of this herbal extract. Records of willow bark as medicine date back to the Sumerians, while other civilizations like the Mesopotamians, Chinese, and Greeks continued its use. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, suggested that patients chew on willow tree bark or make tea with it. If someone was in pain or suffering from fever, willow bark supposedly helped.
Salicin turns into salicylic acid in the body, and that’s what makes it an effective painkiller. Though willow bark was used for thousands of years, it took a long time before anyone identified the specific substance. Johnann Buchner, a German chemist, figured it out in the 1820s and gave it the “salicin,” name, which is Latin for willow. Chemists were later able to extract salicylic acid from the salicin crystals. Now, it was possible to use the more concentrated substance as medicine. Not all was well, though. Salicylic acid upsets the stomach and causes nausea, so not surprisingly, people didn’t want to use it.
Salicylic acid perfected
Felix Hoffman decided to take on this challenge, and literally changed the structure of the acid through “acetylation.” The resulting acid didn’t cause stomach irritation, but still had the fever-reducing, pain-killing effects of the original acid. He named his creation “aspirin,” with the “A” for acetyl, and “spirin” from Spirea, the genus of a shrub that produces salicylic acid. Because Hoffman worked at Bayer at the time, they owned the discovery and began marketing this new medicine. While Germany rejected Bayer’s request for a patent, Bayer got one in the United States, so they dominated the aspirin market without competition for nearly two decades.
In 1900, the tablet form of aspirin came out, and in 1915, people could get aspirin without a prescription. Three years later, Bayer lost the “Aspirin” trademark in the US because it allowed other companies to use it. It’s basically become a generic term now.
Uses for aspirin
Through the history of aspirin and its original willow-bark form, it’s been used for a variety of ailments. These include:
- Muscle pain
Aspirin is categorized as an anti-inflammatory, which is why it has so many uses. Doctors sometimes instruct patients to take a daily dose of aspirin to prevent blood clots. Why? It reduces your risk for heart attack and stroke. You shouldn’t take a daily aspirin unless specifically told to. This is because there are risks, such as strokes caused by a burst blood vessel and stomach ulcers. The risk of stomach bleeding is increased if you drink. If getting a dental surgery, you should be sure to tell your dentist about your daily aspirin dose.
Aspirin has endured through time as an effective medicine, but there are lots of treatments that fell by the wayside. Here are Victorian medicines that were especially bad.