The Drug That is Still Working Wonders
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Aspirin has played such an impressive role that the wondrous starts to become the expected. The Forrest Gump of pharmaceuticals, aspirin has risen to prominence alongside a number of history’s most fascinating figures and eras, from ancient Egypt to Auschwitz. It may not play Ping-Pong, but the drug continues to surprise us with its remarkable capabilities.
When a rogue Egyptologist named Edwin Smith purchased two battered papyrus scrolls for 12 quid in Luxor in 1862, cancer and heart disease were not the killers they are today, and aspirin had not been invented. Dating from 1500 BCE, the scrolls turned out to be an ancient medical text, including a remedy for muscle pains and ear infections derived from the willow tree and containing aspirin’s active ingredient, salicylic acid.
In 1758, the Reverend Edward Stone of Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, discovered that putting a piece of white willow in his mouth eased his joint pain. He had no idea that the Egyptians and such notable ancient physicians as Hippocrates, Celsus and Galen had prescribed the willow to treat inflammation and pain millennia before, much less that in 250 years’ time over 100 billion tablets of the remedy would be consumed every year.
In 1897, 29-year-old Felix Hoffmann, a chemist at German pharmaceutical company Bayer, finally unlocked the composition of modern aspirin—in the same fortnight that he discovered heroin. He could never have guessed that the drug would make his employers richer than any pharaoh, to the tune of about $50 billion in annual revenue to this day.
Bayer, a dyemaker turned drugmaker, patented Hoffman’s discovery in the U.S. and Great Britain. But it could not have anticipated that even before its proprietary rights in the drug expired in 1917, a world war would lead the government in Britain to wreck Bayer’s trademark by declaring “aspirin” a generic term, and the U.S. government seized the company’s New York factory and auctioned off its U.S. properties for a mere $5 million.
After the war, Bayer—confronted with the loss of its rights and a host of new competitors during the worldwide Spanish flu epidemic—launched an advertising blitz touting its painkiller. That campaign forever changed the relationship between pharmaceutical companies, doctors and patients. The same commercial and medical resources would later be used to fund the Nazi party, to persecute the Jewish scientists who had helped discover aspirin, and to develop the Zyklon B gas that killed millions in concentration camps.
Josef Mengele and others tested prototype drugs for Bayer on thousands of human guinea pigs. Twenty-three Bayer employees were later tried for war crimes at Nuremberg.
Taking aspirin regularly reduces risk of developing adult-onset asthma by 22 percent. Source
It was another three decades before researchers began to understand how Bayer’s signature drug actually works, inhibiting the production of the prostaglandins that contribute to pain, swelling and fever. Though British chemist Sir John Vane won a Nobel Prize in medicine for helping to uncover aspirin’s wondrous secrets, he would have marveled that, well after his death in 2004, his fellow researchers would still be uncovering aspirin’s awesome potential to prevent everything from heart disease to cancer to asthma to strokes.
What’s next for this little white pill that could do just about everything?
Is it time for governments to mandate its use by health-care providers to prevent life-threatening diseases and save billions in taxpayer dollars?
Will it be the first drug available for home production on 3D printers?
Forrest Gump likened life to a box of chocolates. But life could just as well be a bottle of aspirin filled with simple, uniform doses and a daily routine—and the promise of better health, fewer aches and pains and lower medical bills for all.