In Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug (Bloomsbury, $25.95) British journalist Diarmuid Jeffreys does something that is pretty nearly impossible: He manages to overstate the importance of aspirin.
It's an impressive feat, because the refined version of salicylic acid produced just more than a century ago in the German laboratories of Friedrich Bayer and Company has been rightly hailed as a miracle drug that saved millions of lives en route to more or less creating the global pharmaceutical industry.
"Aspirin is one of those rare commodities whose very existence seems to have influenced history," writes Jeffreys, "its invention provoking decisions and events that might not otherwise have occurred."
Jeffreys traces the drug from its roots in ancient Egypt through its synthesis in the Bayer labs in the late 1890s. He tells the story engagingly, revealing that Bayer pharmacology chief Heinrich Dreser, who would wrongly claim sole credit for the "invention," was initially unimpressed. Dreser regarded another Bayer product developed within the same two-week period as much more promising. (He wasn't entirely wrong; the other drug was heroin.)
The author highlights aspirin's ascent to household-name status through its role as a palliative in the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19, as well as its latest reinvention as a protector against heart disease.
He overreaches, however, in connecting aspirin to the crimes of Adolph Hitler.
But "had aspirin never been invented, it is unlikely that Bayer would ever have become more than a medium-sized drug and dyestuffs company or that [Bayer managing director Carl] Duisberg would ever have been in a position to realize his ambitious plans [of unifying German industry in a massive conglomerate]. Germany's chemical companies would thus have remained in aloof competition and the grand cartel would never have been formed. How differently might things have turned out then, had there been no IG Farben to prop up the Nazis?"
One suspects that even without aspirin, Hitler would have found a way.
-- Gregory Mott