THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: MARCH 7, 1899

Bayer Patents Aspirin

Aspirin is the commercial name of a drug developed by Bayer in the nineteenth century, using an extract of the bark of the willow tree. Its active ingredient is acetylsalicylic acid. There is evidence in the archaeological record showing that willow tree bark has been used for medicinal purposes as far back as 2000 BC. Typically the drug is used to treat pain, inflammation, and swelling. In the latter half of the twentieth century, not long after its biochemical mechanisms were at last understood, researchers observed that aspirin also inhibits the clotting of blood. This knowledge led to additional research into whether or not aspirin should be used to prevent heart attacks by thinning the blood and reducing the frequency of arterial blockages. While the exact scope of its benefits in this regard is still subject to debate, there is general agreement that aspirin does help reduce the risk of heart attacks.

Medical texts that date back to the ancient civilization of Sumer contain the oldest references to the beneficial effects of tea made from willow bark. The Egyptians were also aware of its beneficial properties, and the Greek and Roman civilizations were likewise familiar with it. During Europe’s Middle Ages, physicians and folk healers remained aware of willow bark’s uses. Finally, in the eighteenth century, scientific research was begun to determine the substance and the mechanism responsible for willow bark’s effects. Several researchers were able to isolate the active ingredient and identify it as salicin by the early nineteenth century, and Charles Frederic Gerhardt synthesized a more stomach friendly “buffered” compound, acetylsalicylic acid, in 1853.

In 1899, drug manufacturer Bayer began selling its product, named Aspirin, for the treatment of fever and for pain relief. The drug quickly grew in popularity around the world, helped in part by the Spanish flu epidemic after World War I, which provided a venue for the drug to showcase its potency. Aspirin generated huge profits for drug companies all over the world, most of them producing the drug independently, without the authorization of Bayer. The trademarked name Aspirin soon came into the lexicon as the generic “aspirin,” which is commonly listed as an ingredient in non-Bayer products.

Zimmer, S. M. (2015). Aspirin. Salem Press Encyclopedia Of Health


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