Posts Tagged ‘ancient use of salicyclic acid’

Pleistocene Aspirin

December 27, 2019

The oldest human civilizations used plants high in salicylic acid to reduce pain and inflammation.  If the Sumerians were aware of these beneficial plant extracts 4500 years ago, it seems likely some individuals ancestral to them enjoyed this knowledge as far back as the Pleistocene.  I hypothesize this knowledge was lost and re-discovered countless times during the pre-history of man.  I’m sure people got sick and even died experimenting with the nutritional and mechanical benefits of various plants.

Salicylic acid is found in willow bark, meadowsweet ( Filipendula ulmaria ), myrtle, and numerous other plants.  Many different species of willow are found in the northern hemisphere, and they are common alongside streams and within wetlands.  Black willow ( Salix nigra ) is an abundant tree in eastern North America, but about 100 species of shrubs in the willow family occur across the continent.  They are all well adapted for living alongside streams.  Broken willow twigs floating down a stream can take root after becoming lodged in moist ground, giving them an additional mechanism for distribution.  Willow pollen is often found in sediment dating to the Pleistocene age, so it has long been found throughout the environment.  Ancient people made a tea from willow bark to relieve headaches and fever.  However, they couldn’t control the dosage, and pure salicylic acid irritates the stomach.

Black Willow Tree is the most significant willow species in the world. The black willow tree referred to as Salix nigra, swamp willow, or weeping willow; The tree found near wetlands in eastern parts of the United States; The average tree grows at the height of 50 to 65 feet tall.

Black willow tree.

Meadowsweet (Latin name Filipendula ulmaria). Medicinal plant in the natural environment of growth, Russia,Siberia Stock Photo - 67570243

Meadowsweet is also high in salicylic acid.

During the 18th century, the age of reason, chemists began experimental trials using salicylic acid.  In 1838 salicylic acid was first isolated from the extract of meadowsweet.  The first clinical trial of salicylic acid extracted from meadowsweet took place in 1876.  Felix Huffman, working for Bayer pharmaceutical company, invented modern day aspirin when he combined salicylic acid with an acetyl compound, creating acetylsalicylic acid. He had been treating his father’s arthritis with a sodium and salicylic acid compound that severely upset his dad’s stomach.  The aspirin was easier on his dad’s stomach.  Bayer started selling aspirin in 1899, and people no longer had to weigh whether getting rid of an headache was worth getting an upset stomach.  The drug was widely available by 1915, and when the world was at war with Germany, non-German companies started producing it.  There was no competition for aspirin until Tylenol went on sale in 1956, followed by ibuprofen in 1962.  Nevertheless, sales of aspirin remain strong, especially since doctors began prescribing a daily low dose of it for people with an high risk of an heart attack.