Great Drugs of the Twentieth Century – 1

The twentieth century is behind us.

Weeping willow tree
Weeping willow – Salix babylonica.

Biotechnology and pharmacogenomics will change the practice of medicine in the 21st century.  While we reap the benefits of genetic medicine in the coming century, let us not forget the synthetic drugs that changed our lives in the 20th.

Here are some of the most important molecules of the twentieth century and the remarkable people who brought them to you.


It’s as old as the hills.  Way back in 400 BC, Hippocrates used willow bark to treat all kinds of aches and pains. For centuries, native American tribes used a decoction made from willow bark for the same reason.

Only around 1820 was the active compound of willow identified as Salicin.  Unfortunately, pure salicin was found to be too harsh on the body.  Until Frenchman Charles Frederic Gerhardt combined it with acetyl chloride and made ASA – acetyl salicylic acid.  But further work was stopped since the process was too tedious.

Charles Gerhardt

In 1899, Bayer chemist Felix Hoffmann came across Gerhardt’s work on ASA while looking for a cure for his father’s arthritic pain.  He used the plant Spirea ulmaria as a source for salicin and re-developed ASA.  The new drug was formally launched by Bayer Chemical Co. on March 6, 1899.

Felix Hoffmann

It became the most famous drug in history.

It truly is a ‘wonder drug’, it’s used not only for pain and fever, it prevents sudden heart attacks and is useful in stroke prevention as well.

No one really knew how ASA killed pain until 1971, when British pharmacologist John Vane discovered that ASA inhibited the body’s production of prostaglandins, compounds that promote inflammation and pain. Vane received the Nobel in Medicine in 1982 for this breakthrough.

john vane
John Vane (1927-2004)

ASA paved the way for many more painkillers like paracetamol, ibuprofen and the like.

What’s ASA, you ask?  Here’s a hint : Take the ‘A’ from acetyl chloride, the ‘SPIR’ from the plant Spirea, add an ‘IN’.

Yeah, we’ve had a full one hundred years of a drug called – Aspirin.

To be continued …


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