From Tree Bark to Aspirin: Herbal Medicine and the Dawn of the Pharmaceutical Industry

Have you ever wondered just how and when the modern age of pharmaceuticals began? Today we dive into a short history lesson to see how it all started.

Quite simply, it all began with a tree–the white willow tree to be exact.

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For ages, the bark of the white willow tree was ground up and drank as a tea to reduce fever and pain. The Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, also known as the father of medicine, wrote about how white willow bark eased labor pains and helped reduced fever. All throughout history and even in the bible, we see mention of the use of willow bark.

It turns out that the willow bark contains a substance called Salicin (shown below.) When ingested, it gives rise to the molecule Salicyclic Acid, which just happens to be the active component of Aspirin! Modern day Aspirin actually comes in the form of Acetylsalicyclic acid, shown on the far right, a much more digestable form with fewer side effects to the mouth and esophagus. It still metabolizes in our bodies to the Salicyic Acid form.

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It wasn’t until 1763 that this active ingredient from willow bark was isolated and studied by Edward Stone of the University of Oxford. But it would be many years until the compound was fully identified and produced as aspirin.

Case in point–this book I have from 1881 shows that herbal medicine was still the only pharmaceutical industry around to treat ailments at that time.

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While chemists began the process of studying white willow bark and it’s pain relieving compound, it was also discovered that Meadowsweet could give rise to the same type of molecule.

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Once Salicyclic Acid was isolated from Meadowsweet, it wasn’t long after that Aspirin was mass produced and the pharmaceutical industry was born.

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Aspirin as we know it was first synthesized by Felix Hoffmann, a chemist with the German company Bayer in 1897. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Which goes to show that herbal medicine is far from snake oils and hoaxes. It is indeed the place where modern medicine began.

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