Just over a hundred years ago, a little-known German pharmaceutical chemist named Felix Hoffmann wanted to do something to help alleviate his father’s rheumatism. He took salicylic acid – an extract of willow tree bark, and something that Hippocrates had prescribed to women in 400 BC to relieve the pain of childbirth – added an acetyl group, and took some home to his dad.
Well over a trillion tablets later, aspirin remains the biggest-selling drug ever created, and whilst it is no longer the recommended treatment for birth pain its uses have grown beyond just rheumatism to all kinds of ills, from hangover cure to reducing fevers and inflammation, preventing heart disease and stroke, and even reducing the incidence of various cancers – a wonder drug if there ever was one.
Felix Hoffmann started out his career as a pharmacist, but became so fascinated by the drugs he handled that he retrained as a chemist, getting a job as a research chemist with Bayer, Germany’s leading chemical company. Soon afterwards, and in the space of just two weeks, he synthesised both aspirin and heroin. He was not actually the discoverer of either drug, but he was the first to recognise the pain-relieving and fever-reducing properties of aspirin (initially by using his long-suffering father as a guinea-pig), and his employers were extremely quick to make it into a commercial success. Despite being arguably the most commercially successful synthetic chemist of all time, Hoffmann never received any royalties on his immensely valuable discoveries, although he had a long and profitable career with Bayer and eventually retired to live out his old age in Switzerland.
Bayer aggressively marketed the drug and it became a commercial success within two years. Going from discovery to commercial production in such a short time would be impossible now, but in those days the head of the pharmaceutical department simply tested it for toxicity on himself, noticed no ill effects, and proceeded with trials on a ward-full of patients in a nearby hospital, before sanctioning production.
Interestingly the same easy-going approach to commercialisation was also applied to Hoffmann’s other discovery of the month, heroin. Heroin (actually acetylated morphine, discovered some 25 years previously by the English chemist C.R.A. Wright), was also commercialised by Bayer and marketed as a pain-relieving drug for childbirth and as a cough suppressant, of all things. It was not for some years until its extreme addictiveness was recognised, and it was almost 30 years before its use made illegal. It would be interesting to know which drug has proved most profitable over the years.
By patenting the synthesis of aspirin, Bayer had prevented others from manufacturing it, and so had a monopoly on the market. The first world war stopped the export of the drug from Germany, so the British Government offered a prize for anyone who could find a way of making it, since Bayer had also kept this secret. Within a year an Australian, George Nicholas, succeeded, naming his version ‘Aspro’; ironically, whilst Hoffmann did not benefit commercially, Nicholas did, to the tune of the £20,000 prize.
After the war, aspirin quickly became the world’s leading painkiller, and when Bayer’s patent expired in 1930, generic versions spread its use even wider. New uses of the drug were far from over though: in the late forties a Californian doctor named Laurence Craven noticed that it might be effective in reducing heart attacks, a suspicion confirmed by more extensive studies in the 1970s. Today, far more aspirin tablets are taken to prevent heart disease than to relieve pain.
In the last decade a number of studies have demonstrated that aspirin can also reduce the onset of various forms of cancer. It has been shown to reduce the likelihood of pancreatic cancer, and it has been estimated that regular use could prevent as many as 43 per cent of cases in women. Another study has shown that it can reduce the onset of polyps associated with colorectal cancer by a similar amount. Yet another recent study demonstrated that taking aspirin reduces the risk of contracting cancers of the mouth, throat and oesophagus by two-thirds.
Little could Herr Hoffmann Senior have foreseen the consequences of complaining to his chemist son about his rheumatism. And a good job he tried the aspirin and not the heroin.