In a letter to his fiancée, the Czech novelist Franz Kafka once praised aspirin, explaining that it eased the unbearable pain of being. To most, that statement will seem overwrought, but it is nevertheless true that aspirin is one of the world’s most widely used pain relievers. Americans alone consume around eighty billion tablets each year.
Doctors have known about aspirin’s active ingredient, acetylsalicylic acid (a compound first found in the white willow tree), at least since the time of the Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 377 BC), who advocated chewing willow bark to relieve pain and fever. But aspirin’s widespread use did not occur until over two thousand years later.
The crucial innovation happened in 1897, at Germany’s Friedrich Bayer and Company, where Dr. Felix Hoffman discovered how to effectively produce synthetic acetylsalicylic acid. Dr. Hoffman was motivated in his research out of concern for his arthritic father, who reacted badly to the cruder pain relievers then on the market. After an initial period of skepticism, Bayer placed the product on the market, labeling it “Aspirin”; chemical companies in other nations soon followed suit. Offered first in a powdered form in 1899 and later as a tablet in 1904, aspirin was immediately and immensely popular.
Why the two-thousand-year wait? Because the free-market system finally provided the incentives for the nineteenth-century chemical companies to turn this folk medical wisdom into an affordable and effective addition to Western pharmacology. The free market continues to encourage the research and development of products that contribute to the health and well-being of people around the world. This is one aspect of the morality of the free market that the Acton Institute presents to our future religious and business leaders, and I thank you for your support these past ten years that has made it possible.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico