Looking at Dr. Walter Sneader there’s no indication that he’s a man who would do battle with one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. He’s a small, bespectacled man with thinning gray hair and a warm, open face.
Similarly the British Royal Society of Chemistry’s annual conference in Edinburgh in 1999 seemed an unlikely forum to right the wrongs of history.
But that year Sneader, an expert on the history of drug discovery from Strathclyde University’s department of pharmaceutical sciences, stepped up to the lectern to do just that.
Sneader was certain he had uncovered the truth about the discovery of the world’s most successful and widely used drug: aspirin. And he felt compelled to act in defense of the truth, to correct the record.
In so doing, the academic reopened a case long considered closed (if indeed it ever even achieved the status of a case). He argued that a chapter of history that had been written 65 years before was in need of a re-write.
Until Sneader spoke out, it had been generally accepted that a German chemist named Felix Hoffmann had developed aspirin while working at the German company Bayer’s pharmaceutical laboratory.
Hoffmann’s father suffered from rheumatic pains, the story went, and encouraged his son to develop a painkiller without the unpleasant side effects of his current medicine, sodium salicylate.
Before aspirin’s invention, sodium salicylate was the only effective drug for rheumatism but it tasted exceptionally bitter and often caused nausea and vomiting.
Like any good son, Hoffmann dutifully consulted the chemical literature and discovered the synthesis of acetylsalicylic acid, the first pure sample of which he prepared in the summer of 1897…Or so says Bayer in the drug company’s official account.
The experiment was a success and in 1899 Bayer marketed pure acetylsalicylic acid under the registered trademark of aspirin.
So why was a British scientist talking about this a hundred years later?
In part because the putative history of aspirin was only first told in 1934— that’s 35 years after the drug’s launch. Why, Sneader wondered, would Hoffmann wait 35 years to claim the discovery of the world’s most popular painkiller as his own?
While researching a talk he was giving on the history of aspirin, Sneader became skeptical of the official story.
There was a contradictory claim, which had mostly been ignored. Perhaps this might explain how aspirin came to be. Sneader believed it deserved greater scrutiny.
The claim was made by Alfred Eichengrün, a German Jewish chemist, in a paper he wrote in 1949. Eichengrün, who had been Hoffmann’s boss at Bayer’s pharmaceutical lab, claimed that he had instructed Hoffmann to synthesize acetylsalicylic acid. So he was responsible for the discovery of aspirin, he wrote.
Indeed, Eichengrün explained, Hoffmann had not even known why he was performing the task, which he only undertook under instruction from his supervisor.
So who was this Alfred Eichengrün? And why might Sneader believe him?
Eichengrün had strong credentials. A prolific inventor of chemical compounds who held 47 patents, he joined Bayer relatively early in his career and quickly ascended the ranks of the company.
Eichengrün made some notable achievements in his time at Bayer. Years before the discovery of penicillin (1928) and antibiotics (1940s), he worked on the development of silver proteinate as a treatment for gonorrhea. In 1897, Eichengrün’s design of the first silver protein was introduced under the brand name Protargol.
By discovering a treatment for ‘the clap,’ Eichengrün must have developed a strong reputation at Bayer, but he left the company a few years later to launch his own lab.
There the chemist developed a type of plastic named cellon, which was used for gas masks and pilots’ goggles in the First World War, and a cellulose acetate that rendered airplanes’ wings water resistant.
Displaying not just talent as a chemist and inventor but also a keen eye for business, Eichengrün then opened his own manufacturing plant, which he called Cellon-Werke. There he pioneered the process of injection molding of plastics so effectively that his practices are still used today.
So the man had some chops. And Sneader was inclined to believe his account of the discovery of aspirin, which Eichengrün had described as a pet project.
Eichengrün wrote that he was utterly convinced of the efficacy of acetylsalicylic acid but his colleagues at Bayer didn’t deem the drug worthy of clinical trials, believing that it was harmful to the heart.
So convinced was Eichengrün that he tried aspirin on himself and then, after he had shown no side effects, started a small, secret trial with local physicians. Due to its secrecy, there is no record of the trial at Bayer. Yet Sneader, the drug discovery expert, fully believes Eichengrün’s account.
“Hoffmann didn’t understand why he was doing the work,” Sneader told the Independent newspaper in Britain. “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 synthesize, he would get the credit for what was produced, not me.”
Sneader believed Eichengrün’s story not just because of the German Jew’s credentials as a chemist, but also because of the timing of the story.
It was more than a coincidence that Hoffmann was declared the discoverer of aspirin in 1934, the year after the Nazis took power, Sneader thought.
He believed history had been rewritten to better suit the Nazis’ weltanschauung, or world view, and that the man who deserved credit for the discovery had been denied it because he was a Jew.
There was much evidence to support this theory.
By the time the Nazi Party came to power, Eichengrün was a prominent industrialist, a wealthy man. Then due to Nazi racial laws, he had to take an ‘Aryan’ associate in 1933, and had to keep a low profile.
With the claim that Hoffmann discovered aspirin in 1934, Eichengrün’s main priority was to keep his business and his life. Kicking up a fuss was not on his to-do list. Despite his efforts, however, the Nazis forced him to sell his company to an ‘Aryan’ owner in 1938.
After losing his business, Eichengrün was somewhat insulated from the horrors of Nazi Germany by what remained of his wealth and by his marriage to an ‘Aryan’ wife. However, he lost his freedom in 1944, when he was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp at the age of 76.
While he languished at Theresienstadt, in what is today the Czech Republic, Eichengrün sent a letter to Bayer asking for help. He pointed to his years of service to the company and the highly valuable contributions he had a made, which included, he wrote, the invention of aspirin.
In the letter from the camp—in which tens of thousands of men, women and children died—Eichengrün clearly explained what led him to discover aspirin. He had been trying to find a salicylate that would not result in the unpleasant side effects (gastric irritation, nausea and tinnitus) associated with sodium salicylate, he wrote.
Bayer ignored the letter, which is today in the company’s archives.
So Eichengrün remained at Theresienstadt until Soviet troops liberated the camp in May 1945, when he was 78 years old.
Like many German companies, Bayer had a less than glorious wartime record. It was part of the conglomerate that manufactured Zyklon B, used in the gas chambers at extermination camps, and its executive Fritz ter Meer was found guilty of carrying out experiments on human subjects at Auschwitz. For this and other crimes, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Upon his release in 1956, however, Bayer appointed the convicted war criminal head of its supervisory board.
At about the same time ten Meer was headed to jail, and four years after Eichengrün was freed from his imprisonment, the Jewish chemist published his account of the discovery of aspirin in the journal ‘Pharmazie.’ Eichengrün described how:
“In 1941, there stood in the Hall of Honor of the chemical section of the German Museum in Munich a showcase filled with white crystals, with the inscription, ‘Aspirin: inventors Dreser and Hoffmann.’
“Dreser had nothing whatsoever to do with the discovery, and Hoffmann carried out my chemical instructions in the first place without knowing the aim of the work.
“Next to the showcase was a similar one filled with acetylcellulose, today also a product of worldwide importance, whose discovery by me it is impossible to doubt since it was established in a series of German patents from 1901 to 1920.
“It was simply described by the expression ‘Acetylcellulose—Cellit’; they had refrained from naming the inventor.
“But, at the main entrance to the museum there hung a large sign which forbade non-Aryans from entering this institute! Those who understand will read between the lines.”
Eichengrün understood only too well. When the official account of the discovery of aspirin was made public in 1934, and celebrated in 1941, there was no mention of him. He had been airbrushed from history like an enemy of Stalin from a Soviet photo as Jews had become personae non gratae in German society.
Alfred Eichengrün died in 1949, but 50 years later Sneader championed his cause in Scotland. Sneader found that everything Eichengrün claimed about the discovery of aspirin was compatible with the chronology of events, and that the Nazis had ethnically cleansed the history books.
The history of aspirin—a drug that has been taken by over 100 billion people—was flawed, Sneader discovered. And, the Scottish scientist explained simply, “My hope is that the man who was truly responsible for the discovery of aspirin receives the full credit he deserves.”
Whether history will one day acknowledge Alfred Eichengrün as the discoverer of aspirin, well, only time will tell.