We take the long view on aspirin's history in this short slideshow. See how aspirin has shaped medicine from its discovery to the 18th century.
Take 2 willow leaves and call me in the morning. The healing propertiesof aspirin, a synthetic derivative of salicylic acid, were discovered circa 3500–4000 BC when the Assyrians and the Sumerians used the extract of willow leaves for relief of musculoskeletal pain and as an antipyretic. Later, bark taken from the willow tree, Salix alba, was adopted by the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek civilizations. Hippocrates (460–370 BCE), the father of modern medicine, gave tea brewed from willow bark to women to lessen pain during childbirth. In the first century CE, the Greek physician Dioscorides prescribed willow bark as an anti-inflammatory.
Spread to the West, and to the East. After those very early years, willow began to be used in various parts of the world as an analgesic, antipyretic, and migraine remedy. Various indigenous populations used extracts for fever, osteoarthritis, and headache. By 216â¯CE, the use of willow bark spread throughout the Western world as well as China and other eastern countries. Extracts of salicylates-containing plants were used to treat rheumatic pains, wounds, ulcers, headache, and dysmenorrhea during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance period, and later years leading up to the 18th century.
Barking up the right tree. In England in the mid-1700s, the Reverend Edward Stone, a clergyman and university fellow, studied the healing properties of willow bark in the search for an alternative to cinchona bark for treating “the agues,” or malarial fever. In 1763, he outlined his findings in a letter to the president of the Royal Society: “It hath been given I believe to fifty perfons, and never failed in the cure, except in a few autumual and quartun agues, with which the patients have been long and feverely afflicted.” The Reverend Stone was the first author to demonstrate the effectiveness of willow bark as an antipyretic with scientific rigor.
Salacin extracts. Italian pharmacists Francesco Fontana and Bartolommeo Rigatelli performed the first extraction of salacin, the active component of willow bark, in 1824. German pharmacologist Joseph Buchner extracted salacin a few years later, and French pharmacist Henri Leroux perfected the process in 1829. Italian chemist Raffaele PirÃ¬a extracted salicylic acid from salacin in 1838. In 1853, French chemist Charles Gerhardt first demonstrated the reaction of sodium salicylate with acetyl chloride, obtaining acetylsalicylic acid-without knowing it. German chemistry professor Hermann Kolbe chemically described and synthesized salicylic acid in 1859. Research showed efficacy of salicylates for acute rheumatism, chronic rheumatism and gout, and rheumatic fever.
For an overview of modern aspirin history and how recent research is shaping its future, check out A History of Aspirin in Modern Disease Prevention.
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Recognition of the healing properties of aspirin can be traced to ancient Sumeria where the extract of willow leaves was first used to treat musculoskeletal pain, inflammation, and fever.In the slides below, we trace aspirin’s early history including geographic spread, expanding applications, and the increasing scientific rigor brought to evaluation of the drug’s properties and potential.