100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Aspirin
Year of Invention: 1853

What Is It? A general pain-relieving, nonaddictive drug.

Who Invented It? Carl Gerhardt (in Paris, France)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Aspirin is the most basic and widely used pain reliever in history. Most people with either a headache or fever take aspirin first and call the doctor second. Hundreds of millions of people depend on aspirin above all other drugs for basic pain relief.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

By 1000 B.C., people living in countries with either willow or silver birch trees had learned that the ground bark of either tree relieved minor pain. People chewed on the bark or ground it into a pain-relieving tea. It worked, but relief came slowly.


How Was Aspirin Invented?

The tidy office of chemist Charles Gerhardt in Paris was filled with the pungent smells of stacked compounds and chemicals stored in boxes and bottles on the shelves lining the walls. In June 1851, a doctor and acquaintance, Maurice Duphan, entered with a problem. Ordering patients in pain to “chew on tree bark” sounded antiquated. A “modern” doctor needed a modern-sounding and stronger pain reliever to prescribe.

Gerhardt suggested straight salicylic acid (the active ingredient in willow bark).

Duphan scowled. “Awful stuff! Creates brutal mouth and stomach irritation that’s worse than the original pain.”

Gerhardt realized that there wasn’t anything else to prescribe for minor pain. Intrigued, he decided to try to create a “strong, modern pain reliever,” even though he had no idea of how to start his quest.

Two days later Gerhardt was jolted awake in the middle of the night by a beautifully simple idea: Start with what already worked, and make it better.

Chemists already knew that the substance in willow bark that actually blocked pain was an acid, salicylic acid. However, pure salicylic acid also created terrible mouth and

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