The Mesopotamian Ur III tablet, dating from about 3500 BC, mentions the willow tree (Salix in Latin) as a medicinal remedy. Centuries later, additional references are found in Egyptian papyrus documents. Throughout history, doctors in many parts of the world knew that eating the bitter-tasting bark of the willow tree had medicinal properties, including relief from fever. Many of the various concoctions derived from it caused intense stomach distress, and in some cases liver damage.
The German Chemists
Fast forward to the second half of the nineteenth century. The British had the best wool. Cotton, silk, and other fabrics came from around the world. These fabrics were dyed using ancient, rare, and expensive raw ingredients like the Phoenician Murex sea snails for the purple of royalty. In the late 1850s, nineteen-year-old British chemist Henry Perkin was trying to synthesize quinine in the laboratory when he noticed a purple color. He named it mauve. It was the first synthetic dye. Soon everyone from Napoleon III’s wife the Empress Eugenia to Britain’s Queen Victoria were wearing clothing colored with Perkin’s mauve dye.
Friederich Bayer, son of silk weavers from Barmen, Germany, was inspired by Perkin’s discovery. In 1863, the thirty-eight-year-old Bayer and a friend founded Friederich Bayer and Company to pursue synthetic dyes.
While not the source of the best fabrics, Germany’s universities had become the world’s most advanced centers for the study of chemistry. Germany’s industrial resources also included coal, which meant that the country had plenty of coal-tar, key to the aniline chemicals used in synthetic dyes.
Bayer and Company grew slowly, until, after the founders died, Carl Rumpff took over in 1881. He raised capital to expand the firm by selling stock to the public. He used the capital to substantially increase Bayer’s research efforts, funding chemistry PhD candidates and post-doctoral students if they would spend a year working on new dyes. One of those chemistry students, a particularly ambitious one, was twenty-three-year-old Carl Duisberg, hired in 1884. After failing to find a synthetic way to make indigo (still today the color used on blue jeans), Duisberg succeeded in synthesizing Congo red in a way that did not violate existing patents. Rumpff soon charged Duisberg with finding new products that the company could make from the coal-tar used in making dyes. Other German chemical companies had discovered the potential of medicines, particularly fever-reducing pharmaceuticals, from coal-tar. Duisberg began to pursue these leads.
The Rise of Carl Duisberg and His Prized Innovation
In 1890, Carl Rumpff died. The ever-ambitious Duisberg, now twenty-nine, became the head of Bayer. He also married Rumpff’s niece. Duisberg then began assembling the best chemists he could hire and built huge new laboratories and factories at Leverkusen, Germany. Duisberg moved into a mansion adjoining the factories. Bayer’s research focused on pharmaceuticals and pharmacology. It was in these buildings that we return to the story of willow bark.
Combing through forty-year-old scientific journals and studying history, Carl Duisberg’s men began to focus on synthesizing the active ingredients in willow bark. Earlier attempts by others had resulted in products which upset the stomach and risked the liver. Bayer researchers found it difficult to eliminate the harmful elements. Finally, after a great deal of testing and clinical trials, his people were convinced of the safety and fever-reducing efficacy of their pure, synthesized acetylsalicylic acid (ASA). After much internal debate, the name “Aspirin’ was chosen as a short and memorable name. The product came to market as a prescription drug in 1899. Doctors quickly wrote the company, saying that Aspirin had many more uses than anticipated, helping not only with fever, but with headaches, toothaches, and other aches and pains. The first “wonder drug’ had been created. Demand for the powder (later pressed into pills) exploded. Bayer was in the big time now, and highly profitable.
(Within weeks of perfecting Aspirin, the same Bayer researchers also discovered a “non-addictive” alternative to the pain-killer morphine, which reportedly gave patients a “heroic” feeling. Bayer thus named the “safe” new drug Heroin.)
Duisberg focused his energies on managing Aspirin, the company’s big new success. Because other companies made ASA (though not as pure as Bayer’s), he could not patent it in Germany. The company did trademark the name Aspirin. For a few years, Bayer was awarded a patent in Britain, but this was overturned after an extended patent fight. The trademarked brand-name Aspirin became as important as having a patented manufacturing process.
Among major markets, only in the United States was Bayer awarded both a patent and a trademark, good through 1919. But the American customs duties (tariffs) on German drugs was high. Copiers, usually with vastly inferior products, flooded the market with ASA. So that he could sell Bayer Aspirin in the US at a lower price, Duisberg created an American subsidiary and built a pharmaceutical factory in Rensselaer, New York.
At the same time, America was flooded with quack (and often dangerous) “patent medicines,” which were heavily advertised in newspapers and magazines. With names like Brane Fude, Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, and Bardwell’s Aromatic Lozenges of Steel, these fakeries were the bane of the medical field. Journalistic exposes of their risks led to the passage of the Food and Drug Act of 1906. Thereafter, doctors could only prescribe drugs approved by the government, drugs could not be advertised to the public, and drugs could only be prescribed by their chemical names – usage of brand names was forbidden.
Prescriptions for Aspirin now read “acetylsalicylic acid.” Desperate to differentiate its product, the American Bayer company began stamping its Aspirin pills with the letters B-A-Y-E-R spelled out vertically and horizontally in the form of a cross. Despite the FDA regulations, patients learned to ask for Bayer Aspirin. The little white pills, especially those sold in America, continued to be a financial blessing for the Bayer company. Having studied John Rockefeller’s creation of the Standard Oil Trust, Duisberg also began to seek ways to limit the “ruinous competition” between Bayer and the other big German chemical and drug companies, primarily BASF and Hoechst.
Then came the ultimate snag in the efforts of Duisberg and his company: World War I.
After failed efforts to keep America neutral by Woodrow Wilson, German Americans, and German companies like Bayer, the US entered the war in 1917 on the side of Britain and France after a German U-boat submarine sank the British ocean liner Lusitania, killing many Americans.
The US government soon took steps to seize all “alien assets” in America, including the factories, patents, and trademarks of the Bayer Company. Bayer’s American executives – almost all imported from Germany – took extreme steps to avoid seizure of the company’s assets. They worked with German spies and the German embassy and tried to restructure the business to save it for their German owners through a complex, clandestine ownership structure. These efforts were found out, resulting in (to say the least) bad press. Other American makers of ASA advertised their products as made in America, not by the evil enemy.
Despite all his “best” efforts to avoid the seizure, Carl Duisberg was losing his golden egg. The US government seized Bayer’s US assets.
On December 12, 1918, the American “Alien Property Custodian” put the American assets of the Bayer Company up for sale at auction. A wide range of chemical companies and Wall Street investors expressed interest. Bidding started at one million dollars. As the numbers rose, chemical giant DuPont dropped out. At $5.3 million, only two bidders were left. Big Wall Street firm Paine Webber’s last bid was $5,305,000. For $5,310,000, Bayer’s American business was sold to the most unlikely and insignificant of bidders, a company called Sterling Products.
Enter William Weiss
Sterling Products had been founded in 1901 in Wheeling, West Virginia by two small-town pharmacists who had grown up together in Ohio: William Weiss and Arthur Diebold. The two men wanted to jump on the patent medicine boom, the same trend that the Food and Drug Act attempted to quash only six years later. Their first product was a quack analgesic, Neuralgine, which they sold from the back of a horse-drawn buggy. Weiss was great at selling and marketing.
Carl Duisberg the expert chemist had spent his life demanding the finest ingredients and the highest purity of product. He was aghast that his “baby” had fallen into such low-life hands. But there was nothing he could do about it.
With their patent medicine business under siege, Weiss saw the value of Bayer Aspirin, obviously valuing it higher than even giant companies like DuPont did. Weiss took the leadership role at Sterling. (His partner Diebold left and later founded a future competitor, American Home Products, eventually renamed Wyeth and even later acquired by Pfizer.) William Weiss quickly put his selling skills to work on Bayer Aspirin.
But Weiss and Sterling had a problem: they knew how to sell, not how to manufacture. Especially not how to manufacture a complex product using precise chemistry. In the scandals and seizure, Bayer’s American executives and chemists had lost their jobs and many had been deported. Few were left who knew how to run the big Aspirin factory in Rensselaer.
The ever-inventive Weiss then secretly reached out to “the enemy” – he wrote letters asking Duisberg for help. Duisberg at first ignored him, but finally met with Weiss, who he viewed with caution at a minimum and more likely alarm. After three years of tense negotiations, an agreement was finally reached. Bayer of Germany would give Sterling the technical assistance it needed. In return, Bayer would receive 50% of the profits Sterling made on Bayer products sold in the US, and 75% of any profits Sterling made on these products in Latin America. Of course, these agreements were in contravention of the requirements laid down when Sterling acquired Bayer’s American operations from the government. But nobody was supposed to know about the deal between Bayer and Sterling.
Weiss then happily went about selling Bayer throughout the Americas with great success. His energy and imagination were endless. In small villages south of the border, he would put a movie projector on the back of a truck, and Bayer Aspirin would sponsor weekend movies for the locals. In the United States, he created enemies at the FDA and among doctors and pharmacists by heavily advertising Bayer Aspirin, which became a non-prescription, over-the-counter product. Nevertheless, patients demanded it and Sterling Products was happy to meet that demand.
In the meanwhile, back in Germany, Carl Duisberg was finally able to achieve his Rockefeller-inspired goal of limiting competition among the German chemical companies. He pulled off a merger with BASF, Hoechst, and several smaller firms to create a giant cartel, IG Farben, which Duisberg headed. This was one of the largest industrial companies in the world. By the end of the 1920s, Sterling Products was surreptitiously sending over a million dollars a year in profits to IG Farben. After Duisberg’s death in 1935, this notorious firm went on to produce the gas for the concentration camps and anything else the Nazis desired for their war efforts. (The cartel was later broken up into its original pieces.)
Unsurprisingly, this state of affairs did not end well for Weiss. The American Justice Department uncovered the dirty dealings, and in 1941 William Weiss was banned from working at Sterling Products for life. Yet Sterling Products continued to successfully sell their wonder drug, Bayer Aspirin. In the post-war period, the “great analgesic wars” raged, Bayer Aspirin competing with American Home Products’ Anacin and Bristol-Myers’ Bufferin and Excedrin. American television audiences were inundated with clever (and sometimes dishonest) advertising. All three companies made a great deal of money. Shares in the companies boomed. Later on, Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol (acetaminophen), American Home Products/Wyeth’s Advil (ibuprofen), and eventually Aleve (naproxen) entered the achy competition.
After changing hands twice in the 1980s and 1990s, in September 1994 the American rights to Bayer Aspirin were acquired for one billion dollars by the German Bayer Company, no longer part of a cartel and now allowed to do business in the United States.
From ancient Egyptian remedies through wars, epidemics, and an overdose of scandal, the bark of the willow tree and the little white pill with the cross on it has persisted, and even found new uses. Carl Duisberg’s dream of ameliorating American headaches has come full circle.
(This article only touches on some of the high points of this convoluted story. Two excellent and fascinating books tell the complete story: The Aspirin Wars; Money, Medicine, and 100 Years of Rampant Competition, by Charles Mann and Mark Plummer, focuses on Bayer in the US and the competitive battles of the 1950s and 1960s, while Aspirin: the Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug, by Diarmuid Jeffreys, covers the full German and international story of the drug. Both books include most of the stories told above, plus many other details on the executives, scientists, scandals, lawsuits, government agencies, spies, ailments, and science involved in this strange, amazing saga.)
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American Business History Center