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Arthur Eichengrün, Inventor of Aspirin

March 15, 2013
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In 1896, chemist Arthur Eichengrün brought forth a miracle—a pure acetylsalicylic acid with medical applications. This was a few years before Lizzie Magie invented the board game Monopoly, and if only the two knew each other, they might have had a lot to talk about. Just as Parker Brothers stole Monopoly from Magie and whitewashed her from history, so to did Bayer make Eichengrün an unperson and cash in on his invention: the aspirin.

Six years after earning his doctorate from what is today Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen University (which is kind of the MIT of Germany), Eichengrün scored a job at Bayer, a German pharmaceutical company. He did some pretty great work there, which included the development of Protargol, a treatment for gonorrhea. This was an especially big deal because antibiotics and penicillin were still decades away. Most careers would peak with beating the Clap, but Eichengrün was just getting started. 

The beneficial properties of salicylic acid were well known when Eichengrün started his research. In 460 BC, Hippocrates himself was grinding up willow tree bark to help treat headaches. Salicylic acid is the active ingredient in such extracts, though it didn’t always go down well, unless you consider “well” to include a bleeding stomach, diarrhea, and, sometimes, death. When Arthur Eichengrün synthesized his pure acetylsalicylic acid, the potential was pretty obvious. He tested the medicine first on himself, and when he didn’t die, began trials through local physicians. According to The Discovery of Aspirin: A Reappraisal, the results were highly encouraging. The medicine seemed to help patients who were suffering from pain, without inducing the generally terrible side effects:

“But there was more—a dentist had given the drug to a patient with a raised temperature as well as toothache. Hardly was he out of the chair before he exclaimed, ‘My toothache's gone!’ Such a rapid onset of analgesia was unique. After a similar response was confirmed in other patients, [Felix Goldmann, an associate of Eichengrün] sent a report to the Bayer management. According to Eichengrün, when [Bayer’s head of the experimental pharmacology, Heinrich] Dreser was asked to comment, he scribbled on it, ‘This is the usual loud-mouthing of Berlin—the product has no value.’”

(So anyway, the potential of aspirin was obvious to almost everyone.)

A few years later, Eichengrün left Bayer and started his own lab. He developed a type of plastic called Cellon, which found a huge demand during World War I for pilots’ goggles and soldiers’ gas masks. The lab also created a cellulose acetate coating for the fabric used on aircraft, making their wings water resistant. Eventually Eichengrün opened his own manufacturing plant, Cellon-Werke, and advanced the science of injection molding, which is still used today in plastics.

In 1933, the Nazis forced Eichengrün to sell his company to “Aryan” Germans. Ten years later, he was imprisoned, and in 1944, was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp. (Thirty-three thousand Jews died at Theresienstadt, with tens of thousands more loaded onto trains and sent to Treblinka and Auschwitz.) While at Theresienstadt, Eichengrün sent a letter to Bayer asking for help. In the letter, he listed his many contributions to the company, including the invention of aspirin. Help from Bayer never came. He and his fellow captives were freed on May 8, 1945, when Soviet troops liberated the camp. Eichengrün died in Bavaria the following year.

We don’t know why Bayer gave credit to Felix Hoffman, an underling of Eichengrün, for the invention of aspirin (alongside Heinrich Dreser, inexplicably). And it was hard for Eichengrün to prove that he was the scientist responsible for aspirin, seeing as how the Nazis banned Jews from pretty much everything that wasn’t horrible. Maybe Bayer was scared of angering Hitler, and Felix Hoffman was just a safer name to go with. I don’t know. But I do have to wonder why, today, when Hitler is definitely dead, Bayer continues to deny Eichengrün’s rightful claim to have invented aspirin. It’s a great big mystery.

As for aspirin itself, because 70,000 metric tons of it are consumed a year, everyone knows a bit about what it can do. Headaches and fevers are the obvious ones. Studies also suggest that it can reduce the risk of death from heart attacks and help treat Kawasaki disease. It can help prevent colorectal cancer. It can sometimes help prevent strokes. It can even remove sweat stains from your t-shirts. No research has yet found a connection between Arthur Eichengrün’s invention and spontaneous unicorn-and-rainbow generation, but you have to figure it’s not far off.

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This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
April 30, 2017
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers (including Amazon) and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

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History
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When the FBI Went After Mad Magazine
April 29, 2017
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Warner Bros., IStock

In a memo dated November 30, 1957, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as “A. Jones” raised an issue of critical importance: "Several complaints to the Bureau have been made concerning the 'Mad' comic book [sic], which at one time presented the horror of war to readers."

Attached to the document were pages taken from a recent issue of Mad that featured a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a “full-fledged draft dodger.” At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that.

Mad, of course, was the wildly popular satirical magazine that was reaching upwards of a million readers every other month. Published by William Gaines, who had already gotten into some trouble with Congress when he was called to testify about his gruesome horror comics in 1954, Mad lampooned everyone and everything. But in name-checking the notoriously humorless Hoover, Gaines had invited the wrong kind of attention.

The memo got several facts incorrect: Mad had switched from a comic book to a magazine format in 1955, and it was Gaines’ E.C. Comics that had “presented the horror of war” in other titles. Despite getting these crucial pieces of information wrong, Jones didn’t hesitate to editorialize: "It is also of interest to note that…it is rather unfunny.”

The agent recommended the Bureau’s New York offices “make contact” with Mad’s headquarters to “advise them of our displeasure” and to make sure “that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name.”

Less than a week later, the Feds entered the hallowed hallways patrolled by Alfred E. Neuman. Their New York office would later report to Hoover directly that they had met with John Putnam, the magazine’s art director. (Conveniently, Gaines was not in that day.) Putnam told the agents he regretted the magazine using Hoover’s name and that nothing malicious was intended:

Putnam said that the use of the membership card and the name and address of the Director at the end of the game was referred to in their business as a 'gag' or 'kicker' in the same way that a comedian like Bob Hope or Milton Berle might use it.

Putnam swore that Mad would never again take Hoover’s name in vain; Gaines sent off a letter of sincere apology to the Director.

The Smoking Gun

Just two years later, in January 1960, Agent A. Jones was forced to file a second notice about the shenanigans at Mad. A recent issue had made not one, but two derogatory mentions of Hoover, including one in which he is blatantly and disrespectfully portrayed as being associated with a vacuum cleaner, “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux”:  

Obviously, Gaines was insincere in this promise…and has again placed the Director in a position of ridicule…it is felt we should contact Gaines…and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure…

It was by now clear Mad was not only polluting young minds, but that Gaines had absolutely no regard for the honorable Hoover’s position.

In June 1961, the FBI’s worst fears had been realized. Detailing an investigation into a Seattle-area extortion attempt led to the following:

Investigation … resulted in gaining admissions from the victim’s 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old companion that they had gotten the idea of preparing an extortion letter after reading the June issue of 'Mad' magazine.   

Working in concert with the Buffalo field office, the FBI determined another letter had been sent by a young boy demanding money in the style of a recent issue’s extortion advice. And there was a third under review that was sent to the agent of some professional wrestlers.

Mad was quickly becoming the scourge of the federal government. The FBI suggested the magazine be brought to the attention of the Attorney General for “instructing [readers] to deliberately violate the Federal Law.” They tried reaching out to Gaines, who was on vacation. (Time and again, Gaines simply not being in the office when called upon seemed to confound the FBI.)

Agent A. Jones, having exhausted all attempts to reason with these irresponsible anarchists, filed one last memo:

Despite assurances, they have continued to publish slurring remarks about the Bureau. In view of this situation, it was deemed useless to protest all such irresponsible remarks to a magazine of this poor judgment and capriciousness … we will have to wait and see if our action will result in increased discretion by this publication.

Poor A. Jones was unable to put an end to Mad’s reign of terror. But the magazine redeemed itself somewhat. In the 1970s, when the Bureau was trying to suppress the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, an agent suggested they copy and distribute a sticker from the magazine that read, “Support Mental Illness—Join the Klan!”

Hoover said no.

Additional Sources:
The Smoking Gun.

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