Sometimes stories are so good that they get passed on from generation to generation, such as the myth about the origins of aspirin.
Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, is often credited with the first uses of willow or myrtle bark for pain relief; however, the 60 medical books he wrote barely mention willow. So, what’s the real origin of this common drug?
Ancient Mesopotamian cultures used willow to treat fever, pain and inflammation. Sumerian clay tablets recorded the use of willow as a pain remedy 4,000 years ago, and more than 2,000 years ago the Chinese and Greeks used it also.
Hippocrates gets the most credit, supposedly recommending chewing willow tree bark to treat fever or pain and brewing willow tea to lessen the pain of childbirth. Hippocrates wrote about willow just once, however, recommending burning willow leaves to make smoke to “fumigate” the uterus to eliminate a miscarried pregnancy.
Most ancient medical treatments using willow applied it externally, and it’s challenging to determine if there was enough salicin in the recipes to be effective. Salicin is the active ingredient in willow bark. The bark of the white willow, likely the tree Hippocrates had nearby, doesn’t have much salicin when compared to other types of willow and myrtle.
It’s unlikely that an effective dose could be achieved by chewing the bark or brewing it into tea. Willow also has bitter tannins that would make it hard to drink enough to relieve pain.
In 1763, the Royal Society published a report by Edward Stone, a vicar in Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, England, about five years of experiments using dried willow bark to treat fevers. Drying the willow bark concentrated the salicin, making it easier to reach an adequate dose.
In 1826, Italian researchers extracted salicin from willow bark, and in 1828, a pharmacologist at the University of Munich purified it and named it salicin for the Latin word for willow, salix.
In 1876, a clinical trial of salicin showed it reduced fever and inflammation in patients with rheumatism. In the late 1800s, the Heyden Chemical Co. in Germany produced salicylic acid for treating pain and fever. Then in 1897, a chemist working for the Bayer pharmaceutical company discovered that adding a chemical group called an acetyl group to salicylic acid reduces its irritant properties. Bayer patented the process and named the new substance “aspirin.”
In 1971, British pharmacologist John Vane and graduate student Priscilla Piper published a paper showing how aspirin works to inhibit the production of chemicals in the body called prostaglandins. Vane and two others received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1982 for their work on “prostaglandins and related biologically active substances.”
Today, aspirin is still used to relieve pain, reduce swelling and fevers and prevent blood clots. Aspirin is still Bayer’s registered trademark in more than 80 countries. An amazing 40,000 metric tons of aspirin are produced annually worldwide. We would guess that a bottle of aspirin is in your medicine cabinet right now.