Heroin – Aspirin’s evil brother

heroin (1) We are standing inside the most expensive funeral home in Zurich, richly decorated, with an open casket in the middle made out of the finest mahogany wood. The room is dark illuminated with candles on both sides and behind the casket. An old lady sits behind a small piano in a corner playing ambiguous soothing music. It is the year 1924. There are only few people in the room; the deceased man despite his huge wealth didn’t have many friends and had no children. Among the moaners in the front row is his young wife, now a widow, who he only married few months ago. She is sad about his death, genuine sorrow on her face behind a black see-through veil, but a small consolation in the back of her mind is the vast inheritance he left her behind. Next to the casket is a black and white photograph of the deceased, unsmiling, holding an obese dog, which he brought with him everywhere and which died many years before him. We now look at the man in the casket, an older version of the man in the photograph. His face is skinny, dominated by a rich grey moustache. He is dressed in his best suit, his glasses deposited in his breast pocket. But who was this man, you are wondering? He was a heroin addict, who spent his last days taking heroin every day, until he died of stroke, a result of long lasting medical difficulties, which could have been prevented by taking daily dose of Aspirin instead. And in here lies the irony, together with him in the casket, because this man brought us both of these drugs. His name is Professor Heinrich Dreser, the inventor of probably the most successful legal drug – Aspirin, and the inventor of the most successful illegal drug – the infamous Heroin. Let us now go back in time to the year of 1897 to a little the town called Wuppertal. Here we see the same man wearing a suit on his way to work. But he is much younger, his receding hair is still mostly black, with some grey hair in the mix, which some call “salt and pepper”. His heavy moustache which completely hides his mouth is still fully black, result of careful picking of each greying hair every morning in front of the mirror. He is wearing glasses, which we now associate with John Lennon, but they look amusingly small on his round face. He stops before the gates and takes a deep breath and exhales loudly. For a moment he looks little nervous, but then determination sets in his face and he walks in. After all today is his first day in a new job as the head of Chemistry Department in a company named Bayer, at the time synthetic dyestuffs producer on its way to become the first pharmaceutical giant in history. Our Professor is very ambitious, as a promising chemist he become a professor at the University in Bonn at a very young age, he was known for his innovative approach, introducing many new methods to the research procedures, but not even he could suspect the huge impact he will have on the company and on so many lives including mine. And it will take him less than a year. There was another famous person born in this small village Wuppertal some 70 years prior to our story, it was the father of the Marxist theory and together with Karl Marx the founder of modern Socialism and Communism – Friedrich Engels. Coming from an ex-communist country, this man had also a huge impact on my life, making my life strangely connected to some small town in rural Germany. Our country is now free for 24 years and I am free for seven from the claws of the drug our Professor invented. To be precise it wasn’t Dreser himself who invented the drugs, but two chemists working under him in the research laboratory, named Felix Hoffman (no relations to Albert Hoffman, who decades later discovers LSD) with the assistance of Arthur Eichengruen. But it was professor Dreser who made the decisions and he also had a contract which guaranteed him a percentage of any profit the company made. So it happens that Hoffman who first synthetized Aspirin and only two weeks later Heroin, never got any recognition or any money. Hoffman came to Dreser first with his product known under the shortcut ASS(Acetyl-Salicyl-Saure), later named Aspirin (for obvious reasons I assume). It worked as a painkiller, and it was very effective against high fever and infection (in fact the chemical was known for centuries, naturally found in Willow trees and Hoffman only improved on the synthesis. Indeed Hippocrates himself describes a powder made from Willow tree to treat symptoms such as headache and fever). Dreser didn’t share Hoffman’s enthusiasm, expressing concerns about the negative effects on human heart and for this reason he dismisses the drug as a product with no value. But the real truth lay elsewhere. Our Professor had already his mind set on another drug, his “golden child” and his big hope for the”big bucks”. Heroin wasn’t an original invention either. Diacetylmorphine (chemical name of Heroin) was discovered in 1874 by an English chemist C.R. Wright, although later Dreser was trying to introduce heroin as original Bayer invention. Dreser tested heroin first on animals (it is said that he was the first to introduce animal testing) and then on himself and other employees. This is how heroin came to his name; it comes from the German word “heroisch” (heroic), because that is how the employee felt after taking it. In November 1898, he introduced heroin to the world as a miracle drug, 10 times more effective against cough than codeine, but 10 times less harmful. Much efficient painkiller than morphine. Safe. Not addictive. For a short period of time heroin did become the miracle of medicine. It wasn’t for his painkiller qualities, but the desperate need for a cough medicine, that made him the “gift from gods” At the time tuberculosis and pneumonia were the most common causes of death, and Heroin positively affected the respiratory system, calmed down cough and helped induce regenerating sleep, all of which made him to a medical Messiah, when in fact it was a false prophet. First reactions were very positive, Bayer-heroin soon replaces the cough medicines on every shelf. Interesting fact is that there was no advertisement, no ad-campaign. Dreser only sent out free samples with a simple leaflet which read “Heroin – medicine against cough. Ask your supplier” Same was true for Aspirin later. But already in the first years of the 20th century came the first negative reviews. Unfortunately the train was already in motion and it was not easy to stop it. In 1906 USA approved heroin for medical use but warned about the addiction that can slowly develop. 18 years later they changed their decision and made heroin illegal, by the time there were thousands of heroin addicts in the USA alone. Some of these recreational users made their money collecting and selling scrap metal, or junk, which inspired the most common name for addicts – junkies. Professor Dreser soon realized that Heroin isn’t going to bring him the wealth and fame, he was hoping for. For Dreser this would under normal circumstances mean a professional failure, if he didn’t have another ace up his sleeve. His disappointment wasn’t based on moral grounds, that his “wonder child” is turning into a dangerous monster, but he was concerned about the lack of profit as a result. He cared about the money more than about scientific advancement,. His co-workers would describe him as eccentric, sarcastic man who always brought his obese dog to work and who never socialize with anybody. The vision of money blinded him, and that is why we found him at the beginning in a half empty funeral home. So when he realized Heroin won’t be his “golden goose”, he turned his attention to another project, which he at first dismissed. Luckily for him Hoffman continued on his research with ASS and Dreser only tried it on his bunnies and on himself and published an excited scientific paper praising ASS, but omitted to mention once again the contribution of Hoffman and Eichengruen. In 1899 he started distribution under the name Aspirin, product that changed the lives of millions of people worldwide, contributed to the alleviation of human suffering and made Bayer and Dreser rich beyond his wildest dreams. He left Bayer and moved to Dusseldorf where he opened his own pharmaceutical institute. In 1924 his deteriorated health forced him to leave his job and move to Zurich where he married his second wife. Same year he died and same year Heroin was made illegal in USA even for medical use. He never had any children and only very few friends and he became a heroin addict in his later years. So again he put his faith int   o the wrong drug and again he could have been saved by the other, but the Universe doesn’t always provides second chances…

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