The discovery of aspirin: a reappraisal

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.321.7276.1591 (Published 23 December 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:1591
  1. Walter Sneader (w.e.sneader@strath.ac.uk), deputy head
  1. Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow G4 0NR

The discovery of aspirin is customarily said to have resulted from Felix Hoffmann's rheumatic father encouraging his son to produce a medicine devoid of the unpleasant effects of sodium salicylate. Hoffmann, a chemist in the pharmaceutical laboratory of the German dye manufacturer Friedrich Bayer & Co in Elberfeld, consulted the chemical literature and came across the synthesis of acetylsalicylic acid and then prepared the first sample of pure acetylsalicylic acid on 10 August 1897. This was marketed in 1899 under the registered trademark of Aspirin. This account of the discovery first appeared in 1934 as a footnote in a history of chemical engineering written by Albrecht Schmidt, a chemist who had recently retired from IG Farbenindustrie—the organisation into which F Bayer & Co had been incorporated in 1925.1

Summary points

Until now, it has been generally accepted that Felix Hoffmann developed aspirin to help his rheumatic father

In 1949 Hoffman's former colleague Arthur Eichengrün claimed that the work had been done under his direction

Analysis of relevant archival and published material now supports Eichengrün's claim and throws doubt on the reliability of the source crediting Hoffmann

It is likely that acetylsalicylic acid was synthesised under Eichengrün's direction and that it would not have been introduced in 1899 without his intervention

Challenge to the accepted account

The footnote also stated that Hoffmann had arranged for several chemical derivatives of salicylic acid to be examined, not just its acetyl ester. No indication was given of what the others were, but in 1899 Heinrich Dreser, head of the experimental pharmacology laboratory at Elberfeld, named them in a paper as propionyl, butyryl, valeryl, and benzoyl salicylic acids.2 He further alluded to them in 1907,3 and again in 1918.4 No earlier reports of the preparation of any of these are to be found, but three of them appear …

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