Salicylates are found in willow bark which was probably used in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) as documented in the Ebers Papyrus by the ‘Middle Egyptians’ ( مِصْر ٱلْوِسْطَى,). The Ebers Papyrus is a copy of an ancient manuscript that was probably influenced by Sumerian medical practice from around 3000 B C. Many plants contain salicylates perhaps as a deterrent to insect predators or because salicylates induce apoptosis of leaves. Aspirin came into prominence as a therapeutic agent after World War II. Investigations were led by Sir John Robert Vane and augmented by Sune Bergström and Bengt Samuelsson for their research on prostaglandins. Although aspirin was originally used because of its analgesic and antipyretic properties, it is now widely used to prevent vascular events. Commonly called a ‘blood thinner,’ it is now known to inhibit the enzymes cyclooxygenase I and 2 irreversibly, thus inhibiting platelet function.
It is effective when used as ‘secondary prophylaxis’ to prevent further vascular events but its role in ‘primary prophylaxis’ is somewhat less clear. Intriguingly it seems to have a role in reducing the risk of metastases from colon cancer.
Like many therapeutic agents it was almost lost but was eventually marketed by Bayer, a German company, which originally manufactured aniline dyes. It went on to become the largest selling drug in the world.
McCann Shaun R. A History of Haematology, Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-871760-7.