From willow to aspirin: what history teaches us about the future

Gert Laekeman

The story of aspirin may have started about 5000 years ago with a description of the therapeutic use of willow in case of pain and fever. Throughout history willow bark and meadowsweet were used in different forms in phytotherapy. Only after the chemical isolation of salicylic acid from these plants in the 19 th century could a phytochemical approach be applied. At the end of the 19 th century, acetylsalicylic acid was synthesized from salicylic acid. Soon the substance became known worldwide as an analgesic, antipyretic and anti-inflammatory medicine. Despite its success, it took more than 70 years to discover the mechanism of action of acetylsalicylic acid. Discovering this mechanism led to new therapeutic developments, more particularly, the use as an antiplatelet drug that could protect patients with cardiovascular risks against myocardial infarction and cerebral thrombosis. In the future aspirin may play an important role in the prevention of cancer and chronic inflammatory diseases. This narrative review demonstrates how careful observations, ethnopharmacological evaluation of the use of medicinal plants (and more particularly willow species), phytochemical investigation and pharmacological insight are a guarantee for scientific development for the profit of patients.
Skvortsovia: 5(3): 33 – 41 (published on line 15 November 2019)