This past March I attended the 100th birthday of my uncle. Many of my relatives were gathered, including cousins from Israel. I learned that one of our distant cousins, Arthur Eichengrün, invented Aspirin, the most widely used drug in the world, with over 50,000 tons of it consumed annually.
There’s understandable family pride in having such an illustrious ancestor. But for me in Berkeley, that pride is tainted because of the actions of Bayer — which has a large presence in the city.
Eichengrün (1867-1949) was born in Aachen, Germany, the son of a Jewish clothing merchant. The German emancipation of Jews in 1871 permitted Jews to attend elite secondary schools and universities for the first time. After studying chemistry, he joined the pharmaceutical giant Bayer in 1896, and the following year invented Protargol, the first effective medication for gonorrhea. Protargol was the standard treatment for over 50 years, until the advent of antibiotics. At about the same time, Eichengrün devised a new process to purify acetylsalicylic acid to make it safe and tolerable to the human stomach. The result was the medication we know as Aspirin.
Shortly after inventing Aspirin and Protargol, Eichengrün left Bayer and founded his own company where he was responsible for 47 patents, among them the invention of a hard, non-flamable plastic called Cellon, anti-rust and anti-freeze agents as well as several inventions critical to the film and photography industries. He has been hailed as a pioneer in both the pharmaceutical and industrial chemistry. His company was “Aryanized” in 1943. He was sent to prison, and then to a concentration camp.
When the Nazis came to power, a Jewish inventor of Aspirin could not be tolerated. Bayer eliminated Eichengrün’s name from the record and gave the credit to Eichengrün’s Aryan lab assistant Felix Hoffmann. Bayer at the time was incorporated into IG Farben, the company notorious for manufacturing Zyklon B, the chemical used in the gas chambers of the Holocaust.
In 1946, shortly after the war, a badly weakened Eichengrün tried to reclaim credit for the invention of Aspirin with an article in a professional journal. He died shortly after publication without receiving acknowledgement from Bayer.
In 1999, scholars re-examined the case and concluded Eichengrün should be credited for his invention. In fact, recent evidence suggests he came up with the “Aspirin” name. Bayer has been presented with the evidence and refused to credit Eichengrün for the invention, standing by the story of Hoffmann’s primacy in the invention.
Bayer is a major company in Berkeley. In fact, it is the second largest biotech company in the Bay Area. It is time that Bayer come clean and acknowledge the contribution of Eichengrün.
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