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Magic in the willow bark

M Laurence Mashford
Med J Aust 2004; 181 (10): .
Published online: 28 April 2004

The pharmaceutical industry of the 20th century began with the successful synthesis and exploitation of aspirin, and the drug’s path illustrates the factors that will probably still determine developments in the 21st century. The virtue of willow bark was established by experience, but the synthesis of pure aspirin captured that virtue without much of its vice. Here was a synthetic drug that worked and a new alchemy was established which transmuted pharmacology into gold. For the first three-quarters of the 20th century the proportion of scientific fact to marketing fiction heavily favoured the latter, and the drug’s protean actions were a source of amazement. The explanation — that these properties were due to cyclooxygenase inhibition — opened a new chapter for aspirin. It also exemplified how new drugs now come as the dividend of resources put into fundamental research.

  • M Laurence Mashford


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