This book examines the evolution of aspirin as a compound and as a drug, used for the treatment of pain

The fall and rise of aspirin: the wonder drug 

P Sheldon 

Studley, UK: Brewin Books 2007 | 278 pp | ?12.95 (SB) ISBN 9781858584034 

Reviewed by Viviane Quirke

This book examines the evolution of aspirin as a compound and as a drug, used for the treatment of pain, inflammation, and more recently for the prevention of certain cardiovascular diseases. 

Written by a physician, it adds a welcome medical perspective to an already wide literature on the history of drug discovery. Thus it begins, not with the discovery of the compound itself, but with the symptoms it was first used to treat, ie ’the fevers’, which created a medical need and therapeutic niche for aspirin, before a combination of empirical observations and scientific advances led to it being tried in the treatment of other conditions as well. 

The book then continues with the ’fall’ of aspirin, after reports of serious side-effects in children and adults led to it being neglected in favour of a competitive drug, paracetamol. 

Finally, it ends with the role played by a series of modern clinical studies in the rise of aspirin as a preventive measure against heart attacks, strokes, and potentially also, colon cancer and Alzheimer’s. 

This book, therefore, presents the historian of chemistry with a well-rounded account of the development of a drug from its invention in the chemical laboratory to its application in the marketplace. It is well documented and attractively produced, with numerous illustrations, tables and charts. 

In my view, however, it has an important flaw. The primary sources are quoted extensively, without any feature enabling the reader to distinguish them from the main narrative. Hence, when the pronoun ’I’ is used, it is not always clear whom it refers to, whether the author, or the quoted source. This makes the first part of the book rather confusing. 

I am therefore happy to recommend the book to Chemistry World  readers as a good introduction to, rather than definitive text on, the history of aspirin.