Trees, Nazis, Heroin, and Other Stuff You Didn't Know About Aspirin


Aspirin is one of the first drugs to be normalized as an OTC medicine, yet it stands the test of time even as evidence mounts against the safety and effectiveness of common drugs like acetaminophen and ibuprofen. It's familiar, but these are some of the things you may not know about this wonderdrug, which really doesn't get enough credit.


Willow trees were an early source of aspirin-like medications

Willow trees were well-known remedies for pain relief in ancient times -- old school Egyptians, ancient Greeks (including Hippocrates), and many other civilizations recognized the pain-killing, fever-reducing, and inflammation-reducing effects of their bark or leaves. The reason? Salicylic acid, a naturally-occurring component of willow bark, is what modern-day aspirin is derived from, so it has similar effects on the human body.

It was one of the first synthetic drugs

When you hear the phrase "synthetic drugs," substances like K2, spice, or bath salts spring to mind. Aspirin, though, was one of the very first synthetic drugs developed in a laboratory -- after salicylic acid is isolated in its pure form from plants, it's treated with a chemical compound to create a new compound called acetylsalicylic acid. It's easier on the body than pure salicylic acid (which caused gastric irritation that resulted in bleeding and ulcers), thereby making a medication that had been used for thousands of years considerably safer to use in the human body.

Nobody is totally sure who first created it (probably because of the Nazis)

Historically, credit for aspirin's development has been given to a German chemist named Felix Hofmann, who was working for Bayer at the time of this accomplishment, along with fellow chemist Heinrich Dreser. However, his former boss, Arthur Eichengrün, claimed that Hofmann had done the work of synthesizing the drug at Eichengrün's behest, and that Hoffman had done so without knowing its purpose. Eichengrün first made this claim in 1944, when he wrote a letter from the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and after his release at the end of World War II asserted that the Nazis attempted to write him out of history. Bayer has yet to acknowledge Eichengrün's role in aspirin's creation.

You might just call it ASS in Germany

The German word for acetylsalicylic acid is acetylsalicylsäure, which leads to the acronym ASS (compared to the English acronym, ASA). This means that you may be able to find brand names like Togal ASS in German-speaking countries. Fun stuff, juvenile humor.


Aspirin (and heroin) used to be trademarked by Bayer

Along with Heroin, Aspirin was a trademarked name that the Friedrich Bayer & Co. registered in 1899. However, when the United States entered World War I against Germany, the company's U.S. assets were seized, and their trademarks were auctioned off and purchased by a private company two years later. Obviously the two drugs took wildly different paths after that.

The kicker? Heroin was synthesized by Felix Hofmann, the same guy Bayer says invented aspirin.

It used to be totally cool for kids to take it (but they really shouldn't, ever)

Back in the old days, kids were given aspirin on the regular. However, a connection was made between kids taking aspirin for chicken pox or influenza and a serious condition called Reye syndrome, which can result in seizures, brain swelling, brain damage, or coma -- and that's just part of the constellation of troubles that strike kids who are affected. There's no cure for the condition (only supportive treatment), so experts advise that parents abstain from giving their kids aspirin unless they're being carefully monitored by a physician.

No one was sure exactly how it worked until the '70s

And for figuring it out (it inhibits prostaglandine synthesis, duh), John Vane won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Those were simpler times, when we didn't need to know how a drug worked -- just that it worked. Of course, that line of thinking also led to stuff like Reye syndrome, so chalk one up for progress.

It may have benefits we don't even know about yet

Despite being well over 100 years old, aspirin is still actively involved in studies, clinical trials and research. Recent studies have shown that daily aspirin use may reduce a person's chances of developing certain cancers by 20%, but research is still ongoing, with clinical trials open at this very moment, in the hopes that scientists can get more insight and data to develop a clearer picture.

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Monica Beyer is a freelance writer who used to take baby aspirin when she was a kid, and it tasted amazing. Be amazed that she survived and follow her at @monicabeyer.