Aspirin 101

Aspirin Development

Acetylsalicylic acid
Acetylsalicylic acid

The problem with these chemicals was that they upset the user's stomach fairly badly. In fact, some people had bleeding in their digestive tracts from the high doses of these chemicals needed to control pain and swelling. One of these people was a German man named Hoffmann. His arthritis was pretty bad, but he just couldn't "stomach" his salicylic acid. Enter this man's son, German chemist Felix Hoffmann, who worked for a chemical company known as Friedrich Bayer & Co. Felix wanted to find a chemical that wouldn't be so hard on his dad's stomach lining; reasoning that salicylic acid may be irritating because it is an acid, he put the compound through a couple of chemical reactions that covered up one of the acidic parts with an acetyl group, converting it to acetylsalicylic acid (ASA). He found that ASA not only could reduce fever and relieve pain and swelling, but he believed it was better for the stomach and worked even better than salicylic acid.

Unfortunately, Hoffmann had to wait for fame. He finished his initial studies in 1897, and his employers didn't pay much attention to it because it was new and they were cautious -- they didn't think it had been tested enough. By 1899, though, one of Bayer's top chemists, a scientist named Dreser, had finished demonstrating the usefulness of the potent new medicine and even gave it a new name: aspirin. It is believed that the name comes from a plant relative of a rose that makes salicylic acid (several plants make this compound, not just the willow). The Bayer company could then support the tested medicine; they spread the word and marketed the new pill widely.

Over the next hundred years, this medicine would fall in and out of favor, at least two new families of medicines would be derived from it, and innumerable research articles would be published about aspirin. Thousands have been published in the past five years alone! One of the most important pieces of research about aspirin came in the early 1970s, when a British scientist named John Vane and his colleagues showed how aspirin works. His work was so important that he and his colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1982. Dr. Vane was even made a British knight for his work!

In the next section, we'll explore exactly how aspirin relieves pain.