Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Aspirin: History and Applications; Cross-Curricular Instructional Strategies, Ideas, and Applications for Teaching about Aspirin in the Science Classroom

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Aspirin: History and Applications; Cross-Curricular Instructional Strategies, Ideas, and Applications for Teaching about Aspirin in the Science Classroom

Article excerpt

Of the thousands of drugs and medicines available for the prevention, treatment, and control of human disease and discomfort, the most widely used is aspirin. The primary reason for aspirin's popularity is its capabilities as a pain reliever, fever reducer, and anti-inflammatory agent.


This article explores the historical development of aspirin and provides teachers with instructional strategies, ideas, and applications for teaching about aspirin in the science classroom. The historical account of the scientific discoveries and breakthroughs that led to the most widely used and beneficial medicine worldwide--aspirin--serves not only as an interesting history lesson but also an excellent opportunity for science teachers to apply this knowledge to lessons in science and other curricular subjects.


The history of aspirin is just as fascinating as its immense popularity and effectiveness as a "drug for all ailments." One of the earliest documented uses of aspirin can be traced back to about 400 BC when Hippocrates (ca460-370 BC) recommended chewing on the bark of a willow tree to relieve the pain associated with the labor of childbirth. The bark of a willow tree, as it would be discovered centuries later, contains salicin, a member compound of the salicylate family and the active ingredient of aspirin.

The bark from the willow tree was recognized as an effective treatment for symptoms such as pain and fever but no one had ever considered it as a therapeutic agent for a particular ailment until the 18th century. In 1763, English physician and clergyman Edward Stone reported on the use of willow tree bark to specifically treat the symptoms of rheumatic fever experienced by 50 parishioners and expanded the prospects to include malaria and febrile (fever) disorders, providing the first written account of the therapeutic effects of willow bark (Stone 1763).

In the 19th century, scientists began to unlock the mysteries of willow bark and identified the compound that was responsible for the commonly observed therapeutic effects. In 1828, Johann Buchner was the first scientist to successfully isolate salicin from the willow tree bark in crystalline form (Weissmann 1991).

Although salicylic acid was widely heralded as an effective pain reliever of its time, this enthusiasm was diminished by unpleasant side effects that included irritation and damage to the inner lining of the digestive tract, mouth, and stomach. The internal damage was attributed to the acidic nature of the salicylic acid molecule. Thus, attempts were made to experimentally neutralize the acidity of salicylic acid by synthesizing its corresponding salt. This was done by replacing the hydrogen atom of the carboxyl group (COOH) with an atom of a metal, for instance, sodium. The result was sodium salicylate, which was less irritating to the digestive tract but was not palatable to the general population.

Up to this point, the synthesis of salicylic acid and related salicylates involved complicated experimental procedures to extract and purify quantities derived from the various plant sources. In light of this, Wilhelm Gerland, in 1852, made another significant discovery when he successfully developed a method by which salicylic acid could be synthesized exclusively in the laboratory without the laborious extraction procedure from plant sources (Mueller and Scheidt 1994). In 1860, German chemists Hermann Kolbe and Eduard Lautemann discovered an organic synthesis reaction that yielded large quantities of salicylic acid from phenol using the organic reactant, acetic acid (Kolbe and Lautemann 1860). This reaction, known as the Kolbe synthesis (Figure 1), eventually led to the inexpensive production of acetylsalicylic acid (ASA), or aspirin, and is used today in the commercial production of aspirin.

In 1893 an industrial chemist at Bayer named Felix Hoffmann synthesized the chemical compound (ASA) and, more importantly, devised an efficient process by which it could be commercially produced (Mueller and Scheidt 1994). …

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