The closing years of the 19th century saw the introduction of two over-the-counter wonder drugs. These products, both manufactured by Bayer, boasted unprecedented results in treating pain and other ailments. They were promoted as being safe, effective, inexpensive, and readily available to purchase over the counter at any pharmacy. We are familiar with both products, but their curious histories and how they each, in their own way, became victims of World War I, will astound you.
The first of Bayer’s miracle drugs was introduced in 1895. Like today, society was dealing with an opioid epidemic. Morphine was the drug of choice for treating pain and coughs, but it was, unfortunately, highly addictive. The German pharmaceutical company Bayer AG developed an effective way to produce diacetylmorphine. This product treated pain quite effectively. It was, in fact, “heroic” in its effects. Based on its heroic status, Bayer named the product “heroin.”
Bayer obtained a trademark for “Heroin” and began marketing it as a “non-addictive alternative to morphine.” In terms of its effectiveness as a painkiller and cough suppressant, it certainly lived up to its heroic name. As for the “non-addictive” aspects, it fell short. It wasn’t long before the number of Heroin addictions would rival those of any other drug. At this point, however, Heroin was available to purchase legally and without a prescription. Any pharmacy had a ready supply for anyone with the money and desire to purchase it.
The other miracle drug followed four years after Bayer introduced Heroin to the world. Like Heroin, the drug itself was not a new discovery, but Bayer found a better way to produce it. The company lost no time in filing for and obtaining a patent for the manufacturing process.
This drug was its own miracle. It could effectively treat pain, fever, and inflammation. Over time, it would be proven to prevent heart attacks, strokes, and some forms of cancer. Its official name is acetylsalicylic acid (ASA). With its improved manufacturing process, Bayer obtained a trademark for a catchier name, and offered the drug to the world under the name “Aspirin.”
Aspirin took the world by storm. Like Heroin, it was effective at what it was supposed to do, but it did not have the nasty addictive side-effects. With the catchy name, improved manufacturing process, and effective marketing, Aspirin soon dominated the market share of pain relievers. Other pharmaceutical companies offered their own version of both medications, but because of the trademark, only Bayer could sell “Aspirin” or “Heroin.” Everyone else was left to offer the less-well-known “acetylsalicylic acid” and “diacetylmorphine.”
Bayer’s success with the products launched it into global status. Quickly outgrowing its German manufacturing facilities, and in an effort to avoid import taxes, it established a manufacturing plant and wholly-owned, American-based subsidiary in Rensselaer, New York. Business went well until war clouds formed in Europe.
World War I triggered many shortages of products that were needed for the war effort. Notably, for this discussion, phenol was one such product. Phenol is a key ingredient for the manufacture of Aspirin. It is also necessary for making trinitrophenol, an essential ingredient in munitions and explosives.
The phenol shortage couldn’t have occurred at a worse time for Bayer. Reduced access to phenol forced the company to reduce its production of Aspirin. This coincided with the approach of the expiration on its patent for the manufacturing process. Knowing its monopoly on the improved manufacturing process was about to end, Bayer had planned a major marketing push to indelibly connect the brand’s name in the public’s consciousness. On top of all of this, Bayer was a German company, and its principal market, the United States, was on the brink of war with Germany.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Bayer looked for the best and brightest minds to help with the dilemma. One would be hard pressed to find a better or brighter mind than the one they turned to: Thomas Alva Edison.
Edison was sympathetic to Bayer’s predicament. He, too, needed a steady supply of phenol. His invention of the phonograph had grabbed the public’s imagination, and photographs and records were flying off the shelves just as fast as store owners could fill them. One thing was hindering manufacture of the records, however: the shortage of phenol.
Edison’s solution was to produce the phenol himself. He built a manufacturing plant that would make all the phenol he needed and more. The excess phenol was slated to go to the U.S. military.
When German officials learned of this new source for phenol, they hatched a plan to divert the surplus phenol away from its intended military recipients. Germany’s intent was not to use the phenol for its own war purposes, but rather to prevent the United States from building up its military so it would remain neutral in the Great War.
In what became known as the Great Phenol Plot, German operatives created a dummy corporation in the United States and entered into an agreement with Edison to purchase the surplus phenol. This would, in turn, be diverted to Bayer, thus ensuring the company’s dominance in the painkiller market.
All seemed to be going as planned until an investigative reporter got wind of the scheme. A media storm built around the matter, and by the time all of the details were exposed to the public, Edison was forced to back out of the deal. Although Bayer survived the Great Phenol Plot, the negative publicity and the phenol shortage certainly took a hit in profits and public opinion.
The United States entered the Great War in 1917. In doing so, it also seized the assets of German companies within its borders. Bayer, in that action, lost not only its physical property within U.S. territory but also its intellectual property, such as patents and trademarks. When the war ended, the government released its hold on the assets of many German companies, but not those of Bayer; it was a special case that was ultimately resolved by the Treaty of Versailles.
One of the key terms of the Treaty was the provision for Germany to make reparations to Allied Powers. Part of the reparations, as agreed to by Germany, was to release claims over certain intellectual properties, including the trademarks for the names “Aspirin” and “Heroin.”
Since then, those two products have taken on a life of their own. Heroin’s harmful side effects soon earned its status as a controlled and heavily-regulated substance, more readily available on the black market than through medical science. Aspirin’s benefits continue to astound medical professionals. It remains available as one of the most frequently used medications in the world. Throughout the world, many companies sell “aspirin,” no longer identified as a proper noun nor with a trademark symbol.
The terms of the Treaty of Versailles did not strip Bayer of its trademark to its product in all of the world, however. Notably, Canada still gives Bayer the exclusive right to use the term “Aspirin.” All competitors are left with no other choice than to sell the product under the name acetylsalicylic acid (ASA).
Read more fun facts about trademarks.
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Read more fun facts about World War I.