Aspirin grew out of a group of drugs called "patent medicines." These medications—some of questionable quality—were very popular from the 1600s to later years of the 1800s. The name "patent" comes from the fact that when a medication was patented (or registered), its formula was owned by the patent holder and no one else could duplicate or sell it. Some early patent medicines had exotic names like "Daffy's Elixer" and "Dr. Hooper's Female Pills." Whatever the name, however, most patent drugs were not terribly effective. Concerns began to grow, especially in the United States, about what was in the patent formulas. Many had very high alcohol levels or were laced with addictive drugs like opium and heroin. The passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 forced all patent medicine makers to list the ingredients of every bottle they sold. An 1938 addition to the law made testing of all medications mandatory; effectiveness tests were added 1968.

Not all patent medicines were phony. Nineteenth-century chemists knew that salicylic acid had pain-relieving qualities, but the acid burned throats and upset stomachs. In 1853 French chemist Charles F. Gerhardt synthesized (formed by bringing together separate parts in a laboratory) a primitive form of acetylsalicylic acid, or aspirin. In 1897 Felix Hoffmann of the Bayer Company found a better method to synthesize the drug and discovered that his version overcame the unpleasant side effects while maintaining the therapeutic effects of the acid. In 1899 Bayer began marketing the new product as Aspirin, a trade name. Bayer lost the use of the trade name in 1919 as part of Germany's concessions to the Allies at the end of World War I (1914-1918), and the name aspirin passed into generic use.

One aspirin-based product, Anacin, was invented by a Wisconsin dentist in 1918. Today, people use aspirin to help with a variety of ills, from headaches to body aches. Aspirin has also been recently tested (and promoted) as a way to control the onset of heart attacks.

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