Aspirin was launched by the German company Bayer in 1899, two years after it was first synthesised in the company's laboratories by the chemist Felix Hoffmann. But according to an expert on the history of the drug's discovery, the credit should have gone to Hoffmann's supervisor, a German Jew named Arthur Eichengrun.
"Hoffmann didn't understand why he was doing the work," said Dr Walter Sneader of Strathclyde University, who has researched the events. "He was just a technician. It's the same today. If I was working with the world's greatest chemist and he told me what to synthesise, he would get the credit for what was produced, not me."
Now Dr Sneader, of the department of pharmaceutical science, hopes to rewrite the flawed history of a drug that has been taken by 100 billion people so that "the man who was truly responsible for the discovery of aspirin receives the full credit he deserves".
He will tell the Royal Society of Chemistry's conference in Edinburgh next week that Eichengrun's part was overlooked because the rise to power of the Nazis meant that anti-Semitism held sway at the time when Hoffmann claimed to have invented aspirin.
In a footnote to a book published in 1934, Hoffmann claimed that he made aspirin because his father had complained about the bitter taste of sodium salicylate, the only drug then available to treat rheumatism. Aspirin (salicylic acid) is closely related chemically.
But Dr Sneader became suspicious about the story when he began researching the origins of aspirin. "The date of 1934 was intriguing. The Nazis had just come to power. They had already taken steps to get Jews out of professions. Anti-Semitism was sweeping Germany; that's when Hoffmann's story first appeared."
Indeed, Eichengrun's role in the development of aspirin suggests that he was closely involved. He challenged Bayer's head of drug development, who initially rejected aspirin from testing that could have led to its commercial use, and he was rapidly promoted to a leading management role in the company.
But when Hoffmann made his claim, Eichengrun was in terror of his life, having left Bayer to start his own chemical company - which the Nazis were now threatening to acquire forcibly. He was thus in no position to defend himself, and Bayer had not published any scientific papers on the discovery, fearing that rivals would learn its secrets.
Eichengrun was later interned in a concentration camp, and only in 1949 did he manage to publish his own claim on aspirin, saying that Hoffmann had made aspirin under his direction. But he died within the month.
Now, by examining laboratory notebooks from the time, Dr Sneader has established that Eichengrun was telling the truth. Hoffmann was methodically following instructions by Eichengrun to make the drug palatable. "There's a clear pattern that substantiates Eichengrun's story," he said.Reuse content