Aspirin is sure cure for aches and pains

Aspirin is sure cure for aches and pains By Bob Karolevitz An aspirin a day keeps the doctor away.

At least that's what I glean from all the health articles, more of which I read as I get older.

On the other hand, apparently there are a few side effects of the so-called "miracle drug" which the anti-aspirin folks like to write about. They don't seem to scare us off, though, because we Americans gobble upwards of 20 billion tablets each year.

We take them to relieve pain, to reduce fevers, to prevent heart attacks and for a variety of other reasons. Busy physicians have even been accused of using the tiny pill as a put-off for hypochondriacs.

"Take two aspirins and call me in the morning" is an old doctor joke � old referring to the joke, not the doctor.

I pop an aspirin each day myself, which is why I did a little research on what has been called the world's most popular drug. Here are some of the things I found:

It is generally accepted that Charles Frederic Gerhardt, an Alsatian scientist, first isolated acetylsalicytic acid (the chemical name for aspirin) while he was conducting experiments in Paris in 1853. He offered no uses for it, though, so the formula gathered laboratory dust until it was re-discovered almost half a century later.

The parent drug � salicyclic acid � however, has been known from antiquity. Hippocrates, called the Father of Medicine, used willow leaves and bark � which contain the drug � to ease the pain of childbirth some 2,400 years ago. Salix, incidentally, is the Greek word for willow. Or maybe it's Latin.

Pliny the Elder described this curative property of the willow in his Natural History. Sad to say, it and none of the other drugs he wrote about helped him much when he was killed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii.

But I digress.

Arthur Eichengrun, chief chemist for the Bayer Company in Germany at the close of the 19th century, has been credited with being the discoverer of aspirin as we know it today. He contended that while the human body could not tolerate the basic salicyclic acid in sufficient quantity to do any good, combining it with the acetyl compound would solve that problem.

When his immediate supervisor refused to approve clinical tests for the drug, Eichengrun tried it on himself. It worked for what ailed him. He then passed it on to Berlin doctors who used it on patients.

In time the Bayer Company accepted the drug for manufacture and named it aspirin after the spirea plant which contains much salicylate. Many of these details came to light much later when Eichengrun wrote his memoirs in a Nazi concentration camp.

Bayer thus became the first distributor of aspirin, originally only available in powder form and on a doctor's prescription. In 1917 the company's patent monopoly ran out, and since then scores of drug firms have gotten in on the act.

Today aspirin is made according to a standard formula. Basically it's just crystals of acetylsalicylic acid and a bit of cornstarch as a binder � although I guess there is a lot of other stuff thrown into some products.

It is colored, flavored, formed in squares, triangles and the familiar circular pill. It is also "buffered," but that's too complicated for me to explain here.

Long before Eichengrun came along, American Indians were chewing on willow twigs as a healing potion. They figured it out without Hippocrates or Pliny or Bayer.

Unfortunately, they never got around to bottling their extract, and chomping on willow leaves to cure a headache is not recommended by our friendly pharmacist.

Frankly, I prefer the pill myself.

© 2000 Robert F. Karolevitz

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