Issue Date: April 16, 2007
discovering Aspirin's history
AS I WAS READING the article "Aspirin's Dose of Structural Insight," the historical disagreement about aspirin's discovery came to mind (C&EN, Jan. 1, page 27).
Aspirin was discovered in the laboratories of the German Bayer Co. in 1897, supposedly by a 29-year-old employee named Felix Hoffmann, who ostensibly was looking for an agent to ease his father's arthritic pain. The drug was introduced to the market and trademarked in 1899. However, the discoverer of aspirin was not Hoffmann but Arthur Eichengruen, a survivor of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Walter Sneader of the University of Strathclyde, in Scotland, uncovered evidence outside and inside Bayer's archives that Eichengruen, Hoffmann's supervisor, discovered the synthesis of the drug and its efficiency by testing it on himself and later on others (Br. Med. J. 2000, 321, 1591). This publication is available online at www.bmj.com.
Since 1934, when the Nazi Party came to power in Germany, Eichengruen's name no longer appeared on the records and Hoffmann's name was printed instead on all references to aspirin's discovery. Eichengruen was not an ordinary chemist. He held many important patents and developed many plastics, including cellulose acetate, both as an artificial silk and as a safety film. Following the commercialization of aspirin, Eichengruen was appointed in 1901 to head pharmaceutical and photographic research at Bayer, while Hoffmann was transferred from research to pharmaceutical sales.
Eichengruen, who obtained a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Erlangen, did not want to jeopardize his important position when the Nazis gained power in Germany, and consequently did not contest the praise heaped upon Hoffmann. According to Sneader, "There can be little doubt that Eichengruen felt he had been written out of history because he was a Jew." Despite all precautions, Eichengruen was incarcerated in Theresienstadt early in 1944 at the age of 76, and remained there until the Soviet Army liberated him 14 months later. In 1949, about 50 years after the discovery of aspirin, Eichengruen published a passionate article in Pharmazie: An International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, in which he restated his claim. He died one month later in December 1949 at the age of 82.
Aspirin relieves headaches and arthritis but has more recently been found to be useful in reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes, if properly administered. In light of the evidence described, it is appropriate that Eichengruen posthumously be given the respect and recognition he justly deserves.
Edward E. Jaffe
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