Sunday, January 1, 2006

Apple #137: Aspirin

  • The first version of aspirin was an extract of the bark and leaves of the willow tree, which was used by Hippocrates sometime between 460 B.C. and 377 B.C.
  • Though people continued to use the willow extract for centuries, it wasn't until 1829 that scientists figured out what it was in the willow tree extract that worked to reduce fevers and heal headaches.
  • It took five different chemists doing slightly different things to isolate, purify, crystallize, and name the active compound, salicylic acid, which is the primary active ingredient in aspirin.
  • In another form, this same acid is used in many soaps to treat acne.
  • Salicylic acid on its own is very hard on the stomach. So a French chemist, Gerhardt, figured out a way to buffer its effects by adding sodium and acetyl chloride. He had no interest in pursuing his discovery commercially, however.
  • A German chemist named Felix Hoffmann came across Gerhardt's formula some 40 years later. As an employee of the German chemical and pharmaceutical company Bayer, he took the formula to his superiors, and they agreed to market the buffered salicylic acid, or acetylsalicylic acid.
  • They called it Aspirin, a word derived thusly: A from "acetylsalicylic," spir from the Latin name for the willow plant spiraea ulmaria, plus in which was just a popular way to end names for drugs at the time.
  • Aspirin was initially sold as a powder. The first Aspirin in tablet form was sold in 1915.
  • Bayer held the trademark for Aspirin until 1919, when it was forced to relinquish that trademark in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. After this, "aspirin" became a generic word for any form of acetylsalicylic acid.
  • In 1950, aspirin was used as a blood-thinner and was first prescribed as a way to prevent heart attacks.
  • Aspirin works by inhibiting the body's production of prostaglandins. These are hormones that regulate many different processes in the body, including making blood clot, raising body temperature, and sensitizing nerve endings to pain. Thus, when aspirin is used, it shuts off the prostaglandins. When this happens, blood clots less easily, body temperature drops, and perhaps most importantly, nerve endings are dulled to pain.

Happy new year.

Sources, Inventors, History of Aspirin by Mary Bellis
Aetna InteliHealth, Aspirin Timeline and How Aspirin Works, Salicylic acid

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