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Aspirin: The story of a Wonder Drug - Diarmuid Jeffreys

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Paperback: 352 pages / Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing / Published: 4 July 2005 / Language: English

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      07.10.2013 13:44
      Very helpful



      If you read one non-fiction book this year... make it this one!

      The Product:

      Aspirin the story of a Wonder Drug by Diarmuid Jeffreys

      ISBN: 9780747574439

      I would usually start a review with a little information about the main ingredient or in the case of a book about the author. Well obviously I am not going to offer a brief synopsis here on aspirin, so here is a little bit about the author:

      Diarmuid Jeffreys is a writer, journalist and television producer. His best know book is "The Bureau: Inside the modern FBI" and the bit about him on the back cover of this book states that he has made current affairs programmes for BBC TV and Channel 4.

      The book is split into three sections: Book 1, Book 2 and Book 3.

      Straight away in the preface Jeffereys gets to the point, explaining that aspirin is so versatile that it has been proven to help with the following ailments:

      Prevention of:

      Heart Attach
      Deep Vein Thrombosis
      Bowl, lung and breast cancer
      Alzheimer's disease

      & the treatment of:

      Aching limbs

      As well as being based on a natural substance, Jeffreys also explains how aspirin is also one of the most successful commercial products ever.

      Jefferys account of this little white pill, appears to leave no stone unturned and incorporated the fascinating history of the drug. Its story is as interesting as any from history, spanning not just decades as a human historical figure might but centuries and different continents and countries.

      Chapter 1: IF YOU EXAMINE A MAN

      The book starts in much the same way as any adventure story would and it is a beginning that the likes of Dan Brown would be proud of: In Luxor an American man Edwin Smith is shown some papyrus scrolls.... it was 18th January 1862 and the scrolls that had been found at the feet of a mummy where titled "If you examine a man...". The scrolls where believed to be from 1500's and copies of documents 1000's of years older. The ancient Egyptian medics believed that there were 4 elements that travelled around the body and these were: air; blood; water and wekhudu. Wekhudu means waste, and they believed that a build up of waste caused illness. One of the drugs used to treat Wekhudu was tjeret whose Latin name is Salix and common name is willow.

      Now you probably all know that Salix = willow and that aspirin is from the bark of a particular Salix or willow tree. But did you know that it was being used 1000's of years ago in Egypt to treat illness? Well, I didn't. Indeed, Jeffreys suggests that it actually went back even further than the ancient Egyptians and Willow would have been one of the plants that ancient man turned to with the oldest written record of its use dating back to a stone in the Sumerian civilization from around 5000 BC. Mention is also given in chapter 1 to another salicytate rich plant Myrtle that the ancient Egyptians used to treat rheumatism in pregnant women. Interestingly the author also includes a footnote of other salicytate bearing plants and mentions that the willow has the lowest concentration of the listed plants.

      A similar papyrus bundle was sold to a German explorer and became known as the Ebers Papyrus and this too recommended the bark of the willow as a treatment against the problems of wekhudu. In AD 30 the famous Roman physician Celsus used extract of willow leaf to treat the classic signs of inflammation. Hippocrates also recommended willow bark as an analgesic.

      Chapter 2 is titled "THE BARK OF AN ENGLISH TREE"

      Chipping Norton 1758 the reverend Stone (who you may remember from studying the Poor Law at school) writes of his findings to the president of the Royals Society. He writes of his findings regarding the healing qualities of the bark of an English tree. Whilst not much had changed regarding medicine for 100's of years the Rev. Stone believed the Hippocratic theory of the four humours of the body, different from the Egyptian 4 already mentioned, being blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. The humours were (believed) the main cause of ill health, also mentioned in this chapter is the illness called the agues. Stone was a previous librarian at his college and was well read. He made the connection of his discovery to older writings and Salix was once again brought to the forefront of medicine.

      Chapter 3: "THE PUZZLE TAKES SHAPE"

      Chapter 3 jumps forward to the nineteenth century and the industrial revolution bringing with it mass production and the first aspirin being sold as a drug. We are taken through the stages of Salacin Crystals, mention is made of the Swiss scientist who learnt how to distil meadowsweet we learn also of the brilliant German scientist Runge who discovered how to isolate caffeine. Yes these are relevant to the aspirin story! But I want you to reads the book, not for me to tell you so much that you don't have to! Several independent studies and findings around the world were relevant and lead us to chapter 4.

      Chapter 4: "THE BIRTH OF A WONDER DRUG"

      In chapter 4 we learn about the coal dye industry chemists who make and trademarked a drug called Antifebrine for Kalle and Company and how it was fast overtaking the non-trademarked acetanilide in sales. Other drugs came along from other pharmaceutical companies and were trade marked with various names.

      Book 2

      Moves on to chapters about marketing and sales etc with chapters titled:

      5. Patents, patients, and sell, sell, sell!
      6. The chemists' war
      7. Civilization could disappear
      8. The aspirin age
      9. A moral collapse
      (all taken from the contents page, 2004).

      Therefore I am hoping you get the drift from these titles how this thorough book continues and it really is a weighty informative tome, but I don't want to write a 5000 word review, so I will leave the centre book there unless I remember anything particularly relevant to another point I make when checking my notes.

      What I like about the layout of this book is if your subject is for example marketing you can go straight to the relevant pages, for most of us however, these pages of the middle book are an interesting insight into the human condition (of greed). These chapters are all relevant to the story and create an interesting insight into the big business that is pharmaceuticals.

      Book 3:


      This chapter again starts like a good adventure novel: "It was a dismal day to arrive. As the lorry laden with his furniture inched carefully through the streets, the mist parted momentarily to reveal bomb-shattered buildings and piles of rubble." (Jeffreys, p 196, 2004).This chapter continues the historical journey of aspirin and explains the discovery and introduction of soluble forms.

      Chapter 11: "SO THAT'S HOW IT WORKS !"

      In chapter 11 the story moves to the American giant Monsanto and begins in a meeting in St Louis in 1956. They are keen to discover the mechanics of action of the drug and how it works on rheumatism and arthritis. The story jumps back to our friend at the beginning of chapter 10 and there is a lot of science here. But, if you are not scientifically minded, don't worry the writing style is such that it is enthralling and it does not at any time get bogged down with the science - you will be so busy being interested and enthralled that the scientific referrals will not leave you out, indeed the more scientifically minded readers, may find this a little too light and say it does not delve deep enough. Remember this is a book aimed at the mass market, the consumer, the general public, not the scientist graduates and chemical wiz kids. A thorough account that goes into a great deal of detail, providing a comprehensive well researched insight into one of the world's greatest products in a lay person friendly format.

      Chapter 12 "AFFAIRS OF THE HEART"

      Does, as you would expect, go into the problems of heart disease and the trials and tribulations of testing aspirin to help in the fight against cardiac illness. Again it appears that no stone is left unturned and this chapter probably contains the most interesting and pertinent information for most of us. It certainly explains why my consultant suggested I take an aspirin a day, despite being asthmatic.


      Explains the relevance of Aspirin today. The beauty of aspirin is that in one tiny tablet, there lies a preventative against many life threatening illness, severe pain and discomfort and a low cost everyday pain killer. It is a concluding chapter that takes us almost back to the beginning of chapter 1 and I am again going to quote from the book here, because I love the poetry of the idea (poetic licence in evidence here, but that is the best way I can think to describe it) here:

      "This idea - that nature might have provided us so neatly with both a life threatening disease and a way of dealing with it, is one that the Reverend Edward Stone would have found intensely appealing; eighteenth century medicine was underpinned by such notions of checks and balances and he would have seen the beauty of its logic immediately." (Jeffreys, p 276, 2004).

      In Conclusion:

      I read this book after being advised to take a small daily dose of aspirin. Many of you actually reading this review will be in a similar position either now or in the future or have someone close to you who takes aspirin as a preventative. You will also either take or know someone who takes aspirin as an everyday pain killer. Remember, when scoring this review, I am not reviewing aspirin, but a book about it. I will not go into the why's and wherefores of aspirin consumption here, just leave it that as a long time believer that I had an allergy to aspirin, I am now a daily doser. Apart from the short summery though the (almost) last word has to go to the author and this is how he ends his book:

      "Aspirin has become a drug for everyman, a treatment so inexpensive and so broadly useful that it is hard to imagine what we would do without it. There are few products of human ingenuity about which that can be said". (Jeffreys, p 277, 2004).

      My final contribution to the review is that this very last sentence paragraph succinctly sums aspirin up, however, the last sentence seems to go against a good deal of what the book was about, yes human ingenuity has mass produced the tree bark, but the real healer is nature! Refer back to the quote prior to the concluding paragraph. - Or, am I being idealistic, despite having read Jeffreys very good book?

      Price and Availability:

      From Amazon "used" for pennies or at £29.97 new. Order or may be available from other good outlets or your local library. Published by Bloomsbury.

      Would I recommend?

      Oh yes, it is a thorough easy to follow book and is surprisingly fascinating read.

      Thank you for reading my review of a must read book!

      One more thing.... If looking for the book, it may not look like the Dooyoo picture, which is the one from the Bloomsbury website. The edition I have features a silver tablet blister pack and red writing, so, jot down the ISBN if you are searching for or ordering a copy: 9780747574439.


      Jeffreys D, 2004, Aspirin the Story of a Wonder Drug, 2004, St Ives.


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