The most common item in an household medicine cabinets is aspirin, “a wonder drug with the active ingredient of acetylsalicylic acid that alleviated pain and reduced fever.”
On 06 March 1899, the German chemical company Bayer filed a patent for acetylsalicylic acid, “originally made from a chemical found in the bark of willow trees.”
In 1915, Bayer began selling Aspirin “in tablet form and without a prescription.” Two years later, Bayer’s patent expired during World War I.
By all the evidence, and by his own detailed accounts, the man who pioneered aspirin’s synthesis was Arthur Eichengruen, a Jew. But when the “official” history of aspirin appeared, in 1934, shortly after the Nazis took power, the credit went to a subordinate of Eichengruen’s, Felix Hoffmann.
In December 2020, the British Medical Journal published a timeline of aspirin’s development. In 1949, Eichengruen published a paper in Pharmazie that “claimed that he had instructed Hoffmann to synthesise acetylsalicylic acid.”
Five years earlier, while in Theresienstadt concentration camp, he had typed a letter (now in the Bayer archives) with wording similar to his 1949 paper. Eichengrün wrote that his objective had been to obtain a salicylate that would not give rise to the adverse effects (gastric irritation, nausea, or tinnitus) frequently associated with sodium salicylate.
Why did Eichengrün wait 15 years before offering a rebuttal to the official story of aspirin’s development?
By the time the claim that Hoffmann had initiated the development of aspirin was published, the Nazis had banned Jews from the civil service and from independent positions in the professions and in economic life. Even as a prominent industrialist, Eichengrün was not exempt from their attentions. He was forced to take an associate into his company to avoid loss of contracts from state enterprises. A low profile was the order of the day, but that was not enough to prevent his company being forcibly transferred to another owner in 1938.
Despite losing its patent during WWI, “Bayer’s Aspirin has survived expropriation of its name, tough regulatory action and periodic health scares to remain one of the top-selling drugs of all time.”