Your RDA of Irony

Artificial Salicin!

August 10. 1897:  New and Improved, with All Unnatural Ingredients.

Somehow ancient medicine knew that eating willow bark could relieve pain.  Perhaps the subsequent splinters in your tongue were like acupuncture.  And you have to wonder how the discovery happened.  Did some shaman tell his patient to nibble on a forest until the pain went away?  Apparently willow bark was worth the exertion and embarrassment.  By the time of Hippocrates (4 centuries before the Jewish Overachiever), the bark was long part of the medical canon and now available in convenient pills.   Hippocrates was quite enthusiastic about the many applications of the bark, particularly during childbirth.  (True, you could always douse the gestating woman with wine but you didn’t want the midwife getting into the retsina.)  The Founding Physician also ignored any possible side effects of a  painfree state of Hubris such as starting wars with Sparta, corrupting Athens’ youth or marrying a woman old enough to be your mother.

Willow bark did have its limitations.  In treating the Black Death, it wasn’t as effective as blaming the Jews.  Nonetheless, over the centuries it remained a popular remedy for aches and agues.  The demand eventually surpassed the supply of willows.  In the 18th century, Botanists were in the first throes of their classification craze and they found that certain shrubs were related to willows and offered similar pain-relieving benefits.  By the 19th century, chemists had sifted out the specific ingredient that offered such merciful qualities: salicin.

Now if salicin could be chemically duplicated–without the tedious, intermediate stages of planting, waiting and  stripping bark–the pain-relieving compound could be quickly produced.  Why let an Industrial Revolution go to waste?!  The idea certainly occurred to the German manufacturer Friedrich Bayer; his factory already made paint.  Any empty vats could be used for medicine.  If the name Bayer sounds familiar, you probably guessed that his staff of chemists did succeed in creating artificial salicin.  It took a few decades before the Bayer drug had achieved the right balance:  curing your headache without hemorrhaging your stomach.  By 1897, however, Bayer had developed a product with minimal side effects.  The marketing department called it Aspirin.  In Italian, that could translate to “without hope”;  and in Greek, “without syphilis.”  However, aspirin was intended to mean that it had no ingredients from the Spirae shrub.  In other words, “our product has no natural ingredients!”

And you wondered why no major advertising agencies are German!


  1. tsitrian says:

    Greeks have been making good use of their forests for eons. During the era of the Roman occupation, their overlords taxed them by collecting wine, which some wily Greek islanders learned to spoil by mixing in the resin from the pine trees that cover so much of coastal Greece. By mixing the resin–retsina–into the wine, the ancient Greeks could keep themselves well-sloshed and subsequently gave birth to what is virtually their national liquor. Opa!!!

  2. Kate says:

    The moose in Alaska are frequently loaded on willow bark, blundering around the town in Anchorage, stumbling on to the runways and getting run over on the highways. We weren’t successful with getting them into a 12 Step recovery program. They would rather nibble on the willows.

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