An Aspirin History that Won't Cause a Headache

You may have heard the phrase, “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” 

It’s been a joke about doctors for years. But it turns out aspirin has been used as a cure for pain and fever since the time of Hippocrates and ancient Greece. He used to prescribe it to patients, even back then. 

However, it wasn’t until March 6, 1899 that the Imperial Patent Office in Berlin registered aspirin, the brand name for acetylsalicylic acid. The patent was filed on behalf of the German pharmaceutical company Friedrich Bayer. Yes, that Bayer. And from then on “aspirin” became an official term. 

Aspirin or acetylsalicylic acid is a derivative of salicylic acid. Acetylsalicylic acid was originally made from a chemical found in the bark of willow trees. It is a mild, non-narcotic analgesic that’s useful in the relief of headache and muscle and joint aches. The secret to aspirin is that it inhibits the production of prostaglandins. Those are body chemicals that are necessary for blood clotting and also responsible for sensitizing nerve endings to pain. That’s why aspirin eases swelling and pain. 

The breakthrough for aspirin came in 1897, when Bayer employees found a way to create a stable form of the drug that was easier and more pleasant to take. 

At first, patients needed a doctor’s prescription to take aspirin. It was given as a powder, one gram at a time. That ended in 1915, the same year aspirin became available as a pill. Two years later, when Bayer’s patent expired, the company lost the trademark rights to aspirin in many countries, including the United States. 

So next time you go to relieve that headache, you can remember that aspirin was used long before modern medicine, before it was even called aspirin. And today, science continues the search for new drugs that will have as profound an effect on human health as aspirin did so long ago and continues to do so even today.

—Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog! 

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