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Our topic for today is Aspirin. It’s the birthday today of Felix Hoffmann (21 Jan 1868 – 8 Feb 1946), the German chemist and lead investigator at Bayer and Co who was responsible for the creation of aspirin.

Hoffmann’s interest in researching new pain medication was fueled by his father’s chronic rheumatism. At the time the best pain killer was salicylic acid (originally extracted from the bark and leaves of the willow tree) which caused some rather nasty stomach upsets and had had a really vile taste to boot.

Aspirin - still one of the most popular medications in the world, more than a century after its invention.(© All Rights Reserved)

Aspirin – still one of the most popular medications in the world, more than a century after its invention.
(© All Rights Reserved)

In 1897, on 10 Aug, Hoffmann synthesised aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), by acetylating salicylic acid with acetic acid. He was not the first to prepare acetylsalicylic acid, but what made the Bayer version superior was that the salicylic acid was in the form of salicin derived from Filipendula ulmaria (meadowsweet), which caused less digestive upset than pure salicylic acid. Clinical trials by Bayer showed the new drug provided effective pain relief, lowered fever and had anti-inflammatory properties.

In addition to the above benefits of aspirin, it has also been shown to have an antiplatelet  effect in blood. As such, long-term low doses of aspirin is an effective treatment to help prevent blood clot formation, heart attacks and strokes.

Of course, as with all medication, it’s not all positive. Some of the not-so-great side effects, particularly with aspirin taken orally, include potential gastrointestinal ulcers and stomach bleeding. Due to these side-effects, and more specifically the potential of Reye’s syndrome (a severe brain disease that can result from administering aspirin to children), it is no longer prescribed to treat flu, chickenpox etc in children and adolescents.

To this day aspirin remains one of the most widely used medications in the world, and it is estimated that annual consumption is around 40 000 tonnes. Even though Hoffmann’s name is on the aspirin patent, it was owned by Bayer and he received no financial share in its huge international success.

Postscript: To add a sinister twist to our story, even though official records show Felix Hoffmann as the lead investigator on the aspirin project, a Jewish chemist, Arthur Eichengrun, later claimed to have been the project lead, and that records of his contribution were expunged under the Nazi regime. Stranger things have happened at the time, and I guess that is a controversy that is unlikely to be clarified anytime soon.

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