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Old Time Heroin

On August 10, 1897 chemist Felix Hoffmann developed a stable form of acetylsalicylic acid. Studies investigated the efficacy of the chemical that could be used for pain relief, as an anti-inflammatory agent and to reduce fever. It was released in 1899 as Aspirin. The World Health Organization has included it in its list of essential medicines for pain and palliative care. Hoffman also developed a stable form of diacetylmorphine, better known as heroin.

Born to an industrialist in 1868, Hoffmann studied chemistry and pharmacology at the University of Munich. He graduated and pursued his doctorate, both magna cum laude. In 1894, he was hired by Farbenfabriken vorm. Friedr. Bayer & Co., now Bayer. He worked on treating arthritis, as sodium salicylate was commonly used but caused strong stomach pain.

Edward Stone of Oxford University found salicylic acid in willow tree bark in 1763. The bark had been used as a pain reliever since Hippocrates. Charles Frederic Gerhardt prepared acetylsalicylic acid in 1853 and was able to solidify it into sodium salicylate. Hoffmann introduced an acetyl functional group to it (known as aceylation) and created a stable and pure form of Aspirin. The name combined acetyl and Spirsäure, German for salicylic acid which derives from meadowsweetSpiraea ulmaria

Aspirin H

During the era, opiates were in common use. Doctors and specialists were pricey, so most treatment came via pharmacists and chemists. Medicines with morphine were used to treat teething babies. Laudanum was an opium tincture. The Opium Soothing Drink called for 30 grams of Sydenham’s laudanum, 15 grams of ether and 1000 grams of water. In 1874, C.R. Alder Wright acetylated morphine and produced diacetylmorphine. Hoffman independently produced the same results, but it was trademarked under the name Heroin (from the German heroisch, “heroic, strong.”)

In a public relations blunder, Heroin was promoted as a cough suppressant and a non-addictive morphine substitute. It actually metabolized and acted quicker than morphine. The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 attempted to control opioids in the US and in 1924 diacetylmorphine was banned. The ban extended to the Health Committee of the League of Nations the Following year.

Around that time, aspirin was not without its trials. A 2009 paper in Clinical Infectious Diseases suggests that many deaths in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic may have been the result of poisoning by high doses of aspirin.

Hoffman retired in 1928 and passed away in 1946. In 2002, the inventor of aspirin was honored by being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

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Topics: History

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