Exactly when it all began is unknown. People have probably known about the medicinal qualities of willow bark for tens of thousands of years. The earliest records of the healing properties of this plant medicine date back 5000 years, written on ancient tablets in The Dynasty of Ur in modern-day Iraq. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans knew that willow bark powder or extract lowered fever and remedied pain.
But somewhere along the way, going into Europe’s Middle Ages, this precious knowledge was lost until a summer day in 1779. The English priest Edward Stone tasted willow bark on a whim. To his surprise, it tasted familiar. The bitter taste was similar to that of the Peruvian tree chinchona. Europe imported large quantities of this tree in the 1700-hundreds because it was the only known medicine against malaria. Could willow bark have a similar effect? Stone picked as much tree bark as he could carry and went straight to a mill. He proceeded to have the willow bark dried and ground. He gave this powder to everyone he knew who had a fever or pain. The willow bark powder had an incredible effect. People soon traveled long distances when they were sick to try the remedy. Knowledge of the healing properties of willow bark had once again entered Europe.
The field of chemistry made dramatic progress in the 19th century, and many chemists took a closer look at willow bark. They could isolate the active ingredient, called salicin because “salix” means willow tree in Latin. Things really took off at the beginning of the 20th century. Doctors realized that this medication worked, a rare thing at the time. Factories opened in Germany, producing large quantities of the drug. By chemically tweaking the molecule, it became easier on the stomach. This new version was called acetylsalicylic acid and sold under Aspirin’s brand name.
Aspirin was an immediate success. It was the most sold drug in the world after 15 years. People used it for colds, toothaches, migraines, and all kinds of medical issues. As the only medication to have an effect against the virus, by lowering fever, Aspirin’s popularity increased during the Spanish Flu.
Humans had enjoyed the sound effects of willow bark for at least 6000 years in 1972. Yet, nobody understood why it worked. Did it affect the central nervous system? Or did it work locally? John Vane and Priscilla Piper solved the mystery and published their findings in the prestigious journal Nature. Acetylsalicylic acid prevents the cells from turning polyunsaturated fatty acids into a substance called prostaglandins (PG). Prostaglandins can provoke pain, ever, and a host of other symptoms.
Acetylsalicylic acid is still a popular medicine. Scientists suspect it might have other health-promoting benefits, such as protecting against cancer, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease. Some even claim that we should take acetylsalicylic acid as a supplement. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to know if it has all these effects. Independent researchers do not have the means to perform the extensive studies needed to get accurate results. And the pharmaceutical industry does not have an incentive to spend money on this kind of research. The Aspirin patent expired 85 years ago, meaning that there is not much money to make from finding few uses for the medication.
We hope you found this little article about the history of aspirin interesting. If you want to practice some kitchen chemistry with your children or grandchildren you can buy all the equipment you need from our webshop. We develop and manufacture a wide variety of chemistry kits.