We like to think that our ancestors were pretty limited when it came to available medications, but that’s not entirely true. Granted, they didn’t have the modern miracle drugs, but they did have their own arsenal of remedies. I saw this first-hand in Egypt where I learned how effectively inhaling vapors from mint extract in warm water could clear your sinuses.
Another good example is the willow tree, especially its bark. We’ve known it has had pain-killing properties for millennia. The Greek physician Hippocrates reported giving willow-leaf tea to reduce fevers. So the ancients knew it would help, but they didn’t know how.
It wasn’t until 1828 that a German pharmacy professor isolated the active ingredient in willow bark. He named it “salicin,” after the Latin name for white willow – Salix alba. But extracting salicin from plants was both difficult and expensive, requiring large quantities of plant matter. The solution was to synthesize salicylic acid, so scientists started on a synthetic version, which Hermann Kolbe, a German chemist, was finally able to do in 1860.
But salicylic acid irritates the stomach, so the next step was to improve upon nature’s work. Bayer chemist Felix Hoffman got the idea to combine an acetyl group with salicylic acid to make a gentler product. His synthetic version was ready in 1897, and once it passed clinical trials, Bayer applied for a patent under the brand name Aspirin: “A” for acetylsalicylic acid, the synthetic compound developed by Hoffmann; “-spir” for Spiraea ulmaria, or meadowsweet, which was a botanical source of salicylic acid; and “-in” because it was a common suffix for drugs at that time.
The patent was granted to the Friederich Bayer Company on March 6, 1899. By 1950, Aspirin was the best-selling pain reliever in the world. Today it’s evolved into a generic term rather than a brand name. But it’s still a milestone worth celebrating.