The Aspirin History

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Medicines containing derivatives of salicylic acid, structurally similar to aspirin, have been in medical use since antiquity. Salicylate-rich willow bark extract became recognized for its specific effects on fever, pain and inflammation in the mid-eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century pharmacists were experimenting with and prescribing a variety of chemicals related to salicylic acid, the active component of willow extract.




A French chemist, Charles Frederic Gerhardt, was the first to prepare acetylsalicylic acid (named aspirin in 1899) in 1853. In the course of his work on the synthesis and properties of various acid anhydrides, he mixed acetyl chloride with a sodium salt of salicylic acid (sodium salicylate). A vigorous reaction ensued, and the resulting melt soon solidified.[6] Since no structural theory existed at that time, Gerhardt called the compound he obtained “salicylic-acetic anhydride” (wasserfreie Salicylsäure-Essigsäure). This preparation of aspirin (”salicylic-acetic anhydride”) was one of the many reactions Gerhardt conducted for his paper on anhydrides, and he did not pursue it further.

Six years later, in 1859, von Gilm obtained analytically pure acetylsalicylic acid (which he called “acetylirte Salicylsäure”, acetylated salicylic acid) by a reaction of salicylic acid and acetyl chloride. In 1869 Schröder, Prinzhorn and Kraut repeated both Gerhardt’s (from sodium salicylate) and von Gilm’s (from salicylic acid) syntheses and concluded that both reactions gave the same compound—acetylsalicylic acid. They were first to assign to it the correct structure with the acetyl group connected to the phenolic oxygen.

In 1897, scientists at the drug and dye firm Bayer began investigating acetylsalicylic acid as a less-irritating replacement for standard common salicylate medicines. By 1899, Bayer had dubbed this drug Aspirin and was selling it around the world. The name Aspirin is derived from “Spirsäure” = an old (German) name for salicylic acid and A = Acetyl. Aspirin’s popularity grew over the first half of the twentieth century, spurred by its effectiveness in the wake of Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and aspirin’s profitability led to fierce competition and the proliferation of aspirin brands and products.

Aspirin’s popularity declined after the development of acetaminophen in 1956 and ibuprofen in 1962. In the 1960s and 1970s, John Vane and others discovered the basic mechanism of aspirin’s effects, while clinical trials and other studies from the 1960s to the 1980s established aspirin’s efficacy as an anti-clotting agent that reduces the risk of clotting diseases. Aspirin sales revived considerably in the last decades of the twentieth century, and remain strong in the twenty-first, thanks to widespread use as a preventive treatment for heart attacks and strokes.

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