What a Headache!

If you take aspirin, you’ve got a pain reliever, heart attack preventer and possible cancer preventer rolled into one tablet. It is a modern day wonder drug. However, its beneficial effects have been known for many years. The word “aspirin” is derived from Spiraea, a biological genus of shrubs that includes natural sources of the drug’s key ingredient: salicylic acid. The Greek physician, Hippocrates (460 to 377 B.C.), wrote that willow leaves and bark relieved pain and fevers. It wasn’t until thousands of years later that people began to isolate the key ingredients of aspirin. In 1829 Henri Leroux, a French pharmacist became the first chemist to isolate salicylic acid, while Hermann Kolbe produced a synthetic salicylic acid in 1874. However, when administered to patients they often experienced side effects of nausea, vomiting, and sometimes coma! A buffer was needed to ease the effects of this acid on the stomach.

The aspirin we know came into being in the late 1890s in the form of acetylsalicylic acid when chemist Felix Hoffmann at Bayer industries in Germany used it to alleviate his father’s rheumatism. In 1899, Bayer industries distributed a powder with this ingredient to general physicians. The drug became a hit and, in 1915, it was sold as an ‘over the counter’ tablet.

Our Year 13 chemists have been following in the footsteps of these pioneering chemists, producing their own samples of aspirin, and testing its purity.