More than 100 years old, aspirin is the most popular and successful drug ever

Aspirin: the story of a wonder drug
Diarmuid Jeffreys
Bloomsbury Publishing 2004 | Pp 335 | ?16.99 (HB) | ISBN 0747570779
Reviewed by Dennis Rouvray

As everyone knows, aspirin or acetylsalicylic acid is an extremely useful analgesic that alleviates all forms of moderate pain. Aspirin destroys the enzyme cyclo-oxygenase which is needed for the production of prostaglandins in the body. Prostaglandins are fatty acid derivatives that are released by damaged cells and can have deleterious effects. For instance, the prostaglandin thromboxane A2 initiates blood clotting but may cause blood platelets to continue to aggregate to the point where they block major arteries. By removing prostaglandins, aspirin greatly reduces the occurrence of heart attacks and strokes. Aspirin also acts as an anti-inflammatory and antipyretic (fever-reducing) agent and is now believed to be active against some serious afflictions such as certain cancers and Alzheimer’s disease.

This work tells the story of aspirin from its earliest beginnings. It is pointed out that salicylates have been known to relieve pain for at least 5000 years, this being first mentioned in the famous ancient Egyptian Ebers medical papyrus. The product was extracted from plant sources such as willow tree bark. A persistent problem, however, was the stomach-churning acidity of this medication, a drawback that was not overcome until after 1853 when the French chemist Charles Gerhardt prepared the acetyl ester of salicylic acid. Aspirin became the most popular and successful drug ever manufactured and currently over 200 billion pills are consumed every year.

Although the author presents us with a lively and fast-paced history, he runs into several difficulties on technical points. Thus, salicylates are not alkaloids as he claims; they are in fact acidic and contain no nitrogen. A number of references in this work are in German - aspirin was first commercially produced by Bayer in Germany - but in virtually every case the German contains errors. Such problems are unfortunate because this is a fascinating book to read.