Aspirin is a bit of a miracle drug. It can be used to treat fever, pain, arthritis, and headaches. It can help stave off ischemia, heart attack, strokes, and some forms of cancer. And it can make wars less painful, too.
Yes, wars — or, at least, World War I.
“Aspirin” is, originally, the brand name used by Bayer for acetylsalicylic acid (or ASA), a compound which has been manufactured for medicinal purposes since 1899. By the start of World War I in 1914, Bayer had become the only meaningful player in the skyrocketing ASA business, establishing itself in its home country of Germany, but also in the United States and in the UK as well. At the time — well before the advent of acetaminophen (think Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), and naproxen sodium (Aleve) — the aspirin business was an incredibly profitable one. And because of the excellent marketing by Bayer, combined with their trademark over the word “aspirin,” the business was one which they ruled.
Prior to World War I, Bayer had already established itself in the United States. Most notably, it established a manufacturing plant and wholly-owned, American-based subsidiary in Rensselaer, New York, in an effort to avoid paying import taxes. But when war broke out, a new problem arose. Phenol, a compound used to synthesize ASA, also had another — and, given the hostilities, more important use: it was a key ingredient to the manufacture of trinitrophenol, used in munitions and explosives. A phenol shortage hit the United States as their main source of it, Britain, had been instead using it to make trinitrophenol, while German sources were stifled due to the British blockade of the north Atlantic. The Rensselaer plant was therefore required to cut their production of aspirin — a particularly significant problem because Bayer’s patent on aspirin was about to expire, and they had planned a large marketing campaign to solidify the brand name in the American consciousness.
So, Bayer turned to backroom deals, with, of all people, Thomas Edison.
Edison was in a similar predicament, as producing his phonographic records also required phenol. His solution was to produce phenol himself, opening up a plant which produced more than enough for his needs. The extra was earmarked to go to the American military, but the German government had other ideas. Germany already had officials in the United States, as part of its efforts to keep America neutral (or ideally, back the Central Powers). Some of them entered into what is now called the Great Phenol Plot — a scheme where a sham corporation entered into an agreement with Edison to purchase his excess phenol. The press got wind of the scam and the deal ended, but not before Bayer was able to ride out the phenol shortage and maintain their hegemony in American aspirin.
But Bayer’s brand among Americans took a hit, and the British government had already stripped Bayer of its trademark over “aspirin.” When the Americans allied to Britain and the Triple Entente, this became important, as the United States seized all of Bayer’s property within the U.S., including their trademarks (at least when used domestically). In many cases, similar seizures would be reversed when the war ended, but Bayer became a special case. The Treaty of Versailles ended the war as it related to Germany, with the Germans agreeing to pay billions of dollars (in today’s terms) in reparations. Because cash payments would lead to hyperinflation of German currency, thereby devaluing the reparations received, the parties got creative. Germany agreed, as part of their reparations, to fork over coal, steel, and other resources. And more relevant to this story, Germany agreed to release claims over certain intellectual property — such as the trademark over the term “aspirin.”
Since then, aspirin has become a generic term in most of the world.
From the Archives: Happy Birthday (c): Another very common thing with an unexpected history surrounding the ownership of its intellectual property.
Related: “Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug” by Diarmuid Jeffreys. 4 stars on 12 reviews. Available on Kindle.