The Story of Aspirin

The effects of aspirin-like substances have been known since the ancient Romans recorded the use of the willow bark as a fever fighter. The leaves and bark of the willow tree contain a substance called salicin, a naturally occurring compound similar to acetylsalicylic acid, the chemical name for aspirin.

Even as far back as 400 B.C. Hippocrates recommended a tea made from willow leaves. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that scientists discovered what was in the willow tree that relieved pain and reduced fever. The substance was named salicylic acid. But when people suffering from pain took the salicylic acid, it caused sever stomach and mouth irritation.

In 1832, a thirty-seven-year-old French chemist named Charles Gergardt mixed another chemical with the acid and produced good results, but the procedure was difficult and took a lot of time. Gerhardt decided the new compound wasn’t practial, so he set aside.

Sixty-five-years later a German chemist, Felix Hoffmann, was searching for something to relieve his father’s arthritis. He studied Gerhardt’s experiments and “rediscovered” acetylsalicylic acid–or aspirin, as we now know it.

Dr. Lawrence Craven, a California general practitioner, in 1948, notices that the 400 men he prescribed aspirin to hadn’t suffered any heart attacks. He regularly recommends to all patients and colleagues that “an aspirin a day” could dramatically reduce the risk of heart attack.

In 1971 John Vane began his work on aspirin. Over a weekend he conceived the notion that the mysterious drug might work by inhibiting the generation of prostaglandins. He turned again to his bioassay system for the answer and within a few days he had convinced himself and his colleagues that this indeed was the missing mechanism of action.


Aspirin reduces the production of hormone-like substances called prostaglandins, which are produced in tissues throughout the body. Prostaglandins have many functions. They are part of the chemical messenger systems involved in feeling pain, fever, the redness and swelling that can accompany injuries, and even in contracting certain muscles, for example, the uterus. Since aspirin lowers the amount of prostaglandins, it can help alleviate conditions like pain, fever and the discomfort of menstrual cramps. Aspirin also reduces production of substances involved in the early stages of our body’s blood clotting mechanism. This is why doctors may prescribe aspirin, as part of a regimen including diet and exercise, for appropriate individuals with cardiovascular disease.

Today over 70 million pounds of aspirin are produced annually all over the world, making it the world’s most widely used drug. Americans alone consume over 50 million aspirin tablets every day. That’s over 15 billion tablets a year.

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