I wite mainly on British botany and ecology.

Aspirin edit

I've also done some work on the use of willow (bark and leaves) for pain relief, which I think comes as a bit of a surprise to some people. There is a widespread belief that willow is the same as aspirin, but it really isn't so. I bought the popular book by Diarmuid Jeffreys which catalogues the imaginary history of aspirin from Sumerian times to the present day (and even into the future... Jeffreys is such a fan of aspirin that he makes claims about medical properties yet to be discovered).

So, leaving aside the issue of "verifiability, not truth", what is the story of aspirin?

Well, first of all, the ancients didn't use willow or anything else as a gentle painkiller. They weren't really very interested in mild pain, and thought little of using cauterisation to treat uterine prolapse (just imagine it!). All they had for pain relief was alcohol and opium. This stuff about Egyptians and Mesopotamians making aspirin from willow is just invented. I assume they chose these authors because it's hard to disprove something that you claim is written in cuneiform or hieroglyphs. None of the legible herbals (and I've checked quite a few) say anything of the sort. (Jeffries explains that is because they got confused, having so many medicines, that they just forgot about it. This despite also claiming it was so widespread that everyone used it all the time).

Edward Stone did claim to have invented a cure for ague. A 100% effective one (tested on 50 patients). Was his ague malaria? In Oxfordshire? Oxfordshire is on dry limestone hills and had very low rates of malaria. Let's imagine that he managed to force-feed say 1 kg of dried willow bark to each patient, giving them roughly the equivalent of 1 aspirin tablet of salicin. Would that have cured malaria, even if aspirin cured malaria (which it doesn't) even if they had malaria? Anyhow, the confederate army desperately tried willow and many other tree barks as cures for malaria during the blockades of the civil war, and it didn't work. It seems more likely that Stone's patients had flu and got better on their own. Stone, by the way, flatly denied (quite correctly) that any herbal mentioned willow as a painkiller or as a febrifuge. Anyhow, his cure didn't really work, and he was pretty much ignored.

In the 19th century people extracted salicin and loads of other aromatic chemicals from plants. Doctors tested them randomly. A chap called MacLagan tried salicin as a cure for rheumatic fever, with some success and some side-effects. MacLagan had never heard of Stone, or the Ebers Papyrus, or any of that. He was just trying his luck, as Captain Cook did with lime juice, and he struck lucky (they both did). So now we knew that very high doses of salicin worked as a febrifuge (not as a general painkiller). A few other doctors started using salicin, but most continued to ignore MacLagan for many years, and left their rheumatic patients untreated.

In an unrelated incident at about the same time, some German doctors discovered that an entirely artificial chemical, acetanilide, worked as a painkiller. But it had horrible side effects. Many years later it was discovered to be related to paracetamol, which is much safer, but for now it was shelved. However, because it is an acetylated aromatic chemical, it gave rise to an acetylation craze.

The acetylation craze was seized upon by the people at Bayer, because they had experience with these chemicals from their coal tar dye industry. They manufactured lots of different acetylated chemicals, including acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin). They had so many good things to test that aspirin spent 18 months on the shelf before they even looked at it. They eventually gave it to some dental patients, who almost immediately reported great relief. Bayer were not brilliant at medical trials. Originally they didn't really know what to do with aspirin, but they marketed it anyway and let people experiment as they liked. It was during the Spanish flu pandemic that it became really popular but, as we know, aspirin isn't really strong enough for that sort of work, and it's thought that many people were killed by overdoses (especially in the US army). Nevertheless, its future was sealed and it's been used to treat colds and flu ever since.

Felix Hoffman later claimed that he had invented aspirin for his father's rheumatism. There might be a grain of truth in that, but probably not that much, because he didn't show any interest in testing it. I suspect it is just a good story (and more palatable than his other claim to fame as the inventor of heroin).

So on the one hand we have a romantic story about ancient herbalists discovering aspirin, and poor old scientists merely refining the technique. On the other hand, we have the more prosaic truth that industrial chemists working for a company that was later broken up because of its associations with nazi Germany invented it by boiling distilled coal tar at about 400 degrees Celsius. You can see why many people prefer the story.

Name change edit

For a short while I edited as user:scalloway, but lost that account when my email address disappeared.