Retrobituaries: Arthur Eichengrün, Inventor of Aspirin

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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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March 15, 2013 - 12:00pm
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