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Vol. 2 No. 2 (1996)

Physicians, Fads, and Pharmaceuticals: A History of Aspirin

  • Anne Adina Judith Andermann, B.Sc., M.Phil. Cantab
November 7, 2020


Aspirin is a product of the late-nineteenth-century laboratory, pharmaceutical industry, and medical community. The prevailing scientific techniques, industrial approaches, and medical beliefs were instrumental in the development, promotion and reception of the drug. As a result, the present account does not extend further back than a few decades prior to the release of aspirin from the laboratories of Farbenfabriken vormals Friedrich Bayer & Co. in 1899. In contrast, much of the current literature on aspirin (2,3,4) attempts to trace the compound back to antiquity through the Ebers papyrus, the Hippocratic writings, and the works of Galen. Such histories tell a simple, linear tale of the numerous "discoveries" proposed to have led to the use of certain salicylate-containing plants, such as willow bark and wintergreen, or salicylate-related compounds, including salicilin and salicylic acid, as cures for a variety of ailments. Indeed, according to Mann and Plummer: Both [salicilin and salicylic acid] attacked fever and pain, and their partisans advocated the salicylates' use as antiseptics, mouthwashes, and water preservatives for ocean voyages; one important chemist further suggested (erroneously) that sodium salicylate, a chemical relative, would successfully treat scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles, syphilis, cholera, rabies and anthrax (5). However, it is difficult to establish what effect, if any, these examples of the "historical" uses of "proto-aspirin" had on the impetus for and modes of developing and using the actual drug called aspirin. As a matter of course, aspirin is usually described as the natural descendant from these salicylate forefathers. However, the history of aspirin is not as straightforward a tale as conventional histories suggest, but rather is a complex narrative of the people and circumstances involved in transforming a simple chemical compound into a popular pharmaceutical product that has remained one of the most widely consumed drugs for almost a century.


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