Aspirin: The History Behind The Heroin Addict Who Invented It
Not to alarm you, but those little white pills that make your headaches dissolve and soothe inflamed muscles have more in common with heroin than you think, i.e. anything at all. Not only are both drugs technically painkillers, they were also first commercially synthesized at the same time by the Bayer pharmaceutical company. Both drugs had been around for some time before the drug conglomerate mass produced the pills, but it's thanks to a few different scientists/low-key drug addicts, namely Heinrich Dreser and Felix Hoffmann, that we all have a bottle of aspirin hidden away in our medicine cabinets today.
Two Guys "Invented" Aspirin
One of the two scientists who receive most of the credit for "discovering" aspirin is Heinrich Dreser, a professor who was researching codeine's effect on breathing for the Bayer pharmaceutical company in 1898. He proposed that diacetylmorphine—a white, crystalline variation of morphine—could be marketed as a cure-all to the masses after he performed some home tests on himself. As he felt his breathing slow and his pain drift away, he realized that he hit the jackpot.
The other, Felix Hoffmann, was a young pharmacist who bounced around Germany and Austria before he was appointed to the research department at Bayer to create chemical substances to be used as medication.
Hoffmann's Father Inspired His Research
It wasn't just Hoffmann's job to synthesize new chemicals for Bayer to patent; it was his passion. In 1897, he was searching for a pain reliever for his father's rheumatism when he stumbled upon a version of synthesized acetylsalicylic acid. The new drug was named aspirin for the plant it came from, Spirea, with an "A" for "acetyl." The same year, Hoffmann tested a similar, more powerful drug that Bayer employees said made them feel "heroic," or heroisch if you're German.
Dreser Believed Heroin Was Harmless
Not only did Hoffmann hand over his synthesized salicylic acid to Dreser, who was then the head of Bayer's pharmaceutical laboratory, he brought heroin to his boss as well so he could take these drugs for a test drive. It's believed that Dreser was a frequent user of morphine and wanted to find an alternative to the drug that was less "hypnotic." Satisfied with the safety of Hoffmann's finding, he signed off on aspirin's safety and skipped animal or human testing in favor of getting it on the market.
Doctors Had Mixed Opinions About Heroin
Bayer went all in on its marketing campaign for what we now know as one of the most deadly drugs ever created. In its wake, several doctors raised concerns over the toxicity of the drug and patients who displayed increasing tolerance to it, but others were reluctant to write it off. In a 1911 edition of the Kentucky Medical Journal, local doctor J. D. Trawick wrote "I feel that bringing charges against heroin is almost like questioning the fidelity of a good friend."
Bayer Ditched Heroin But Stuck With Aspirin
It only took about 10 years for the negative side effects of heroin to become impossible to ignore. As addiction mounted, the rise of heroin-related medical issues forced physicians sit up and take notice. In 1913, Bayer stopped producing heroin, and one year later, use of the drug without a prescription was banned.
By 1920, heroin was on its way out. The House of Delegates of the American Medical Association stated that "heroin should be eliminated from all medicinal preparations and prohibited in the United States." Bayer was still propped up by aspirin, but the drama wasn't over yet.
Bayer briefly held the patent on Aspirin
So what if heroin didn't work out? Bayer still had aspirin in its back pocket. Unfortunately, they were too late to patent their commercial version of the medication. Their initial application was rejected because it was already synthesized in 1859 by chemist Hermann Kolbe. Without the patent, Bayer was still allowed to market aspirin, but they weren't the only company doing it. On March 6, 1899, Bayer finally won their patent war, but any champagne that was popped proved premature. By the 1920s, aspirin went generic, allowing you to pick it up in any drugstore in the country for literally pennies per pill. Bad news for Bayer, but good news for our collective cardiovascular health.