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Aspirin: A Bitter Pill


Aspirin is the most successful drug in history. It was discovered 100 years ago and a trillion tablets are consumed every year. Used to treat everything from headaches to heart disease, from rheumatism to cancer — scientists are still struggling to understand all its qualities. But aspirin can truly claim the title of wonder drug.

According to historical record, a 29-year-old German chemist Felix Hoffmann synthesized aspirin in its pure form in 1897 after his father complained about the taste of sodium salicylate, the drug used to treat rheumatism. It is Hoffman who in 1999 was feted across Germany as the nation celebrated one of the only global "brands" it can lay claim to.

But new research has uncovered evidence outside and inside the Bayer archives, proving that it was not Hoffmann but his supervisor, a German Jew named Arthur Eichengrun, who discovered the drug. His name, however, no longer appears on the records and Hoffmann's name is printed in all references to aspirin's discovery. The year was 1934, when the Nazi party had come to power.

What makes this tale so remarkable is that Arthur Eichengrun was no small-time chemist. He was an immensely rich man, the owner of many important patents, whose business and personal affairs ironically linked him to some of the highest-ranking Nazis in Germany. His country house was next door to Hitler's and his Berlin apartment was in the same block as Hermann Goering, Hitler's designated successor. He was a major-league player — a patriot with important contacts and considerable power.

Aspirin's story begins with Bayer — now one of the world's most successful pharmaceutical laboratories — through the manufacture of aspirin; passes through the top levels of German society and the concentration camps of wartime Germany to which Eichengrun was deported; and ends in 1949 with a passionate 2000-word article in Pharmazie (The International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences), in which Eichengrun restated his claim — 50 years after aspirin's discovery and only one month before his death.

Buried in the archives and with much information since destroyed, this story went unheard for the next 50 years...until now.