The pharmaceutical company that started out selling synthetic colors and marketed heroin

The pharmaceutical company that started out selling synthetic colors and marketed heroin

For a long time, in the town of Leverkusen, in Germany, the most striking illuminated advertisement in the world reigned: not in vain, it was an aspirin 120 meters high and 51 in diameter .

1,710 bulbs shone on this giant tablet, forming the famous cross of the pharmaceutical company Bayer.

Synthetic colors

Friedrich Bayer was originally a paint and stain dealer, before teaming up with master dyer Johann Friedrich Weskott in 1863 to found a factory to take advantage of the rapidly expanding synthetic dye business.

As Joe Schwarcz explains in Monkeys, Myths, and Molecules :

Historically, dyes were extracted from plant sources such as indigo and pellets, from sea snails or from insects such as kermes or cochineal. All that changed in 1856, with the fortuitous discovery by William Henry Perkin of synthetic dyes. His accidental synthesis of mallow while trying to obtain quinine from coal tar started the synthetic dye industry.

If you could already make dyes in the laboratory, why not make the leap to pharmaceuticals? Bayer got down to work, and in 1888 came the discovery of phenacetin, after Hoechst’s antipyrine (the first antipyretic and analgesic drug), in 1883. Bayer discovered aspirin shortly after its flagship product, aspirin, in 1898 .

Between 1898 and 1913, Bayer would also market heroin: they were trying to obtain codeine from morphine when they came up with heroin, which in fact had been synthesized for the first time around 1874 by the British chemist Charles Romley Alder Wright . The name "heroine" was chosen because in experiments with her patients were often heroic and courageous. Basically, it was marketed as a cough suppressant.

The first antimicrobial drug, sulfonamide, was also discovered at Bayer by Gerhard Domagk .

However, with its glades and shadows, at Bayer the star invention was aspirin, which, despite the myth, did not originally come from the bark of the willow tree :

The starting material for the chemical synthesis of aspirin is benzene, a petroleum derivative. Once converted to phenol, it is converted into acetylsalicylic acid, or ASA, commonly known as aspirin. Although aspirin is not made from willow bark, there is a relationship. White willow bark, like several other plants such as myrtle, contain various compounds with chemical similarity to aspirin.

In February 2017, Bayer showed interest in the purchase of the American multinational company Monsanto. On June 7, 2018, Bayer bought the multinational Monsanto and became the largest agri-food company in the world.