The German pharmaceutical company Friedrich Bayer received a patent for Aspirin on this date in 1899. This most ubiquitous of nonprescription drugs had its roots in the bark of the willow tree, and the development of the synthetic version was an international endeavor. Plants like willow and meadowsweet were used as a pain remedies by Sumerians and Egyptians as early as 3000 BCE. The Greek physician Hippocrates reported giving willow leaf tea to women in the throes of childbirth to help ease their labor pains. In 1783, an English clergyman named Edward Stone wrote a letter to the Royal Society. He explained that, over five years, he had had consistent success in relieving ague and fever in his parishioners by giving them dried white willow bark. In 1828, a German pharmacy professor isolated the active ingredient in willow bark and named the bitter yellow crystals “salicin,” after the Latin name for white willow — Salix alba. Extracting the salicin from plants was difficult, and required a large amount of plant matter to produce the necessary quantity, so scientists went to work on a synthetic version. A German chemist named Hermann Kolbe first synthesized salicylic acid in 1860.
In 1895, a Bayer chemist named Felix Hoffmann was given the task of developing a “new and improved” synthetic salicylic acid product. He had a personal stake in the work, because his father suffered from rheumatism but couldn’t take salicylic acid without vomiting because it irritated his stomach. Hoffmann studied the scientific literature, and felt that combining an acetyl group with salicylic acid would yield a gentler product. He came up with an effective synthetic version in 1897, and once it passed clinical trials, Bayer sought a patent for the brand name Aspirin: “A” for acetylsalicylic acid, the synthetic compound developed by Hoffmann; “-spir” for Spiraea ulmaria, or meadowsweet, which was a botanical source of salicylic acid; and “-in” because it was a common suffix for drugs at that time. By 1950, it was the best-selling pain reliever in the world.