The Development of Aspirin

Felix Hoffmann was born in Germany in 1868. He began his career as a pharmacist but fell in love with chemistry, ultimately earning a Ph.D. in the subject. Upon receiving his Ph.D., he joined the pharmaceutical research program at the Bayer Company.

Employees at Bayer were given some freedom to explore new and useful drugs. Felix, as the legend goes, was looking for a drug to help ease his father’s rheumatism. Felix decided to add acetyl molecules to salicylic acid, the active ingredient in salves and teas from willow bark. Salicylic acid was synthesized but had not proven useful as a medicine because of the side effects it caused. The result of Felix’s work proved effective in the relief of pain, lowering of fevers, and the reduction of inflammation.

After extensive testing, the new drug was heavily marketed under the name of Aspirin (A for acetyl and the spirin for a shrub producing salicylic acid). Initially, aspirin was sold as a powder but was reduced to a tablet later. Aspirin went on to become one of the most used medicines of all time.

Later in his career, Felix was asked to support a project studying the effect of codeine (a weak version of opium) on breathing. Felix was asked to acetylate morphine to see if codeine could be produced. The result was heroin which Bayer sold as a remedy for coughs, the reduction of pain during childbirth, the preparation of patients for anesthesia, and as a control for some mental conditions. It wasn’t until later that the destructive nature of heroin addiction was discovered.

Felix is both a hidden hero for his discovery of aspirin and an unfortunate “villain” for his work in the development of heroin. Where aspirin was extensively tested prior to use, the testing of heroin did not pick up on its addictive nature. The work of hidden heroes is often impacted by how that work is used. Felix was the discoverer of new medicine, but their use was beyond his control.

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“Friends seem to be like aspirin; we don’t really know why they make a sick person feel better, but they do.” – Letty Cottin Pogrebrin (Author)

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