This Day in Jewish History

1899: Bayer Patents Aspirin, Will Pretend It Hadn’t Been Invented by a Jew

Sent to Theresienstadt in 1943, Arthur Eichengruen finally protested the theft of credit for the invention, in an attempt to get released. It didn’t work – but he survived.

David B. Green
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Arthur Eichengruen, photographed in 1896.
Arthur Eichengruen, photographed in 1896.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
David B. Green

On March 6, 1899, the German chemical concern Bayer patented a pharmaceutical it called “Aspirin” – a wonder drug with the active ingredient of acetylsalicylic acid that alleviated pain and reduced fever.

By all the evidence, and by his own detailed accounts, the man who pioneered aspirin’s synthesis was Arthur Eichengruen, a Jew. But when the “official” history of aspirin appeared, in 1934, shortly after the Nazis took power, the credit went to a subordinate of Eichengruen’s, Felix Hoffmann.

With 47 career patents to his name, Arthur Eichengruen would have been a formidable figure in the German chemical industry, even without aspirin.

He was born in Aachen on August 13, 1867, and was educated at the city’s Karl Kaiser Gymnasium and Aachen Technical College. As the college didn’t issue PhDs, his doctorate in chemistry was granted by the University of Erlangen, in 1890.

After employment at several different chemical firms, including one where he worked on production of cocaine (then used as a local anesthetic), Eichengruen was hired by Bayer in 1896, at the same time it bought his formula for Protargol, a drug that remained the standard treatment for gonorrhea until the 1940s. Bayer patented the medication but, as its sole inventor, Eichengruen received 5 percent of the profits on royalties, which made him a rich man.

Secret tests

As for aspirin, the analgesic properties of salicylic acid had been known since about the time of Hippocrates in the 4th century B.C.E., but it was at Bayer that scientists figured out how to make it in a safe, medicinal compound. Hoffmann was in fact on Eichengruen’s team, but he just took instructions from his boss.

Eichengruen’s commitment to the drug even included subterfuge. His boss, Dr. Arthur Dreser, a mathematician, was convinced it would be harmful to the heart. Eichengruen secretly distributed samples of aspirin to Berlin physicians, who reported back on its effectiveness at alleviating pain and lowering fever – and the absence of any evidence that it did cardiac damage.

Even then, Dreser dismissed Eichengruen’s test results by suggesting that, “This is the usual loud-mouthing of Berlin – the product has no value.”

Of course, Eichengruen prevailed, and the product became a phenomenal success for Bayer, which trademarked the “Aspirin” brand name (also an invention of Eichengruen’s) and marketing it internationally.

A black-and-white advert for Bayer products, including Aspirin and Heroin
An advert for Bayer products, including Aspirin and Heroin, around the turn of the 20th century.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Not indispensable

By 1908, Eichengruen – having now moved into plastics research – left Bayer and founded his own firm, Cellon-Werke. He quickly came up with several promising products, and in 1915 opened a production plant.

Because of his crucial role in German industry, and also thanks to the fact that his third wife was not Jewish, Eichengruen was able to continue with his work, initially at minimal personal cost. In 1933, he was required to sell part of Cellon-Werke to an “Aryan.” Even in 1938, when he was forced to sell the remainder, he was permitted to continue his research from home.

Only in 1943 did the regime crack down on Eichengruen. After he was discovered to have written a letter and left out the addition of “Israel” to his name, as was required of all Jews, he was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp. With one break, he remained there until the end of the war.

A decade earlier, when Hoffmann claimed paternity for aspirin, Eichengruen had known better than to protest. By 1944, however, he was trying to get released from the camp and wanted to prove his indispensability to the Reich. He made his case in a long letter to I.G. Farben, by then Bayer’s owner, and included evidence supporting his claim to having invented the drug.

It didn’t help. But Eichengruen did survive, and after the war’s end moved back to Berlin, where he actually was feted as something of a national hero before his death in 1948, in Wiessee, Bavaria.

Nonetheless, it was only the research of pharmacologist Walter Sneader, at Scotland’s University of Strathclyde in 1999, which made clear that the principal figure behind the development of aspirin was Eichengruen, a fact around which today there is near-consensus.