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Throughout history, people have used the bark or leaves of the willow tree for medicinal purposes. Hippocrates, among many others, suggested that people suffering from pain make a tea from willow leaves. Others told patients that chewing on willow bark would relieve their pain. A substance present in the willow tree was isolated in the 1800s, leading to the discovery of aspirin.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, scientists discovered that salicylic acid was the substance found in willow leaves and bark that reduced fever and relieved pain. This was not practical to use, however, as people who took salicylic acid suffered from severe mouth and stomach irritation, and sometimes even death.
Charles Gerhardt, a French chemist, mixed salicylic acid with sodium and acetyl chloride in 1853, creating acetosalicylic anhydride. The procedure to make this compound was time-consuming and difficult, causing Gerhardt to abandon his project without marketing it.
In 1894,a German chemist named Felix Hoffman was looking for a way to treat his father's arthritis pain. Along with a researcher named Arthur Eichengrün, he came across Gerhardt's experiments, and replicated them, creating acetylsalicylic acid, or aspirin. This was the first drug that was not an exact copy of something found in nature, but synthesized in a laboratory. This synthetic drug was the start of the pharmaceutical industry.
Hoffman gave some of the as-yet unnamed aspirin to his arthritic father, who experienced a reduction in pain. Bayer decided to patent and market aspirin, along with another drug that Hoffman had synthesized, heroin. Heroin was a synthetic version of morphine and was originally more successful than aspirin, as it was thought to be healthier. When heroin was found to be extremely addictive, aspirin began to outsell it.
Aspirin was carefully named by the Bayer company. The prefix 'a' was to signify the process of acetylation that Gerhardt had first done with his salicylic acid experiments. The root 'spir' was chosen because salicylic acid comes from the spirea plant. The suffix 'in' was the common ending for medicines at the time. Thus, the name Aspirin was created.
Although Charles Gerhard had thought that his compound was useless, aspirin has many uses. People commonly use it today to alleviate pain and fever. Scientists are researching aspirin for other uses, including possibly preventing strokes and heart attacks, managing diabetes, and slowing the growth of cancerous tumors and cataracts.
Each year, over 70 million pounds of aspirin are produced worldwide. It is the most widely used drug in the United States. Aspirin was originally produced in a powder form, and is still sold this way in much of Europe. Aspirin tablets were introduced by Bayer in 1915.
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