Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Humble Vicar, and the Discovery of 'Aspirin'

by Mike Rendell

Next time you reach for a bottle of aspirin to treat your headache, or back pain or rheumatic fever – let’s just call it “an ague” – spare a thought for good old Edward Stone, a vicar who lived at Chipping Norton. One day in around 1757 he was walking across the meadow near his home. Willow trees were thriving in the damp boggy conditions and he idly stripped off a piece of the willow bark (as one does) and chewed it. Now, willow bark is extremely bitter – and the good Reverend immediately remembered another very bitter bark – one brought back from South America and known at the time as Jesuit’s Powder or Peruvian Bark. It was known for its beneficial qualities – because it contained quinine.

jesuits bark

My ancestor Richard Hall used Jesuit’s  Bark as a cure for wind or flatulence, and I still have books and books of his medical recipes (or 'receipts' as he called them). Richard would have appreciated the laterally-thinking Reverend Stone.

Stone surmised that the bitter willow might have similar qualities to Jesuit’s bark. He carried out an experiment by gathering a pound of common white willow bark. He dried it by hanging it in a bag over a bread oven for three months and then pulverised it with a pestle and mortar to create a dry powder. He then split it up into small doses and administered it to around fifty ague-ridden parishioners (amazing to think how many gullible people must have been living in Chipping Norton at the time – “Trust me, I’m a vicar, now swallow this bitter pill”). Every one of the victims/patients noticed an improvement, or as the vicar himself said, the pills “were a powerful astringent and very efficacious in curing agues and intermittent disorders.”

Stone conducted a series of clinical trials to ascertain the most efficacious dose. As he was later to write:

“Being an entire stranger to its nature I gave it in very small quantities, I think it was about twenty grains of the powder at a dose, and repeated it every four hours ….Not perceiving the least ill consequences I grew bolder with it and in a few days increased the dose to two scruples, and the ague was soon removed.”

My ancestor Richard Hall’s explanation of apothecaries’ measures – a scruple being the equivalent of twenty grains ( originally a twenty-fourth part of one ounce).

Stone administered the powder “with any common vehicle such as tea, water or small beer” and noted the time taken for the patient to improve. In fact he had discovered salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. On 25th April 1763 he wrote a letter to Lord Macclesfield, the President of the Royal Society, outlining his researches of the previous six years, and giving details of the findings.

Stone's letter, published courtesy of the Royal Society

Stone’s letter, published courtesy of the Royal Society. In it he was
mistakenly referred to as ‘Edmund’ but his name was ‘Edward’.

It was to be another ninety years before a more digestible compound
of acetyl chloride and sodium salicylate was developed. It was later
marketed by Beyer under the name of Aspirin. (The name "Aspirin"
was finally trade-marked at the end of January 1899). But it was Stone who did the initial scientific research and who ironically
"re-discovered" the use of the willow. These had been known to the
ancient Greeks - Pliny and Hippocrates had both extolled its virtues
as a pain-killer some 2000 years earlier, but it had then disappeared
from view. Stone's scientific approach kick-startede more research -
not bad going for a vicar with no medical or scientific training.

Stone died aged 66 in 1768 and the blue plaque recording his
achievement was put up near where he lived in Chipping Norton some
ten years ago. Now, where can I find a headstone for an Ed Stone…


Mike is the author of a book about his
ancestor Richard Hall called The Journal
of a Georgian Gentleman
and is currently
working on a book about the loose morals
of the Georgian era, due to be published
next year under the title Sex, Scandal and
Satire - in bed with the Georgians

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