Flavin’s Corner

The Power of Powder

Headache?  Severe pain?  If the year was 1898 or 1899 one might purchase a small envelope containing a white powder to relieve a headache or a small envelope containing a brownish powder to help with severe pain.  Both powders were sold by Bayer, a German pharmaceutical company, and both were also synthesized in a stable, marketable form two weeks apart, in April of 1897, by the same Bayer chemist, Felix Hoffmann.  The white powder was aspirin; the brownish was heroin.  Today, many are getting headaches (and worse) from handling envelopes with white or brownish powders inside.  Ah, the continuing power of powder!

Many ancient people around the planet used willow and myrtle bark, as well as other plants, to treat headaches and minor ailments.  The active ingredient in willow bark, which made various salves and teas so effective, is salicylic acid.  Though synthesized in 1859 and sold after 1874, salicylic acid upset the stomachs of most users and wasn’t very popular.  Bayer had already achieved commercial éclat by acetylating certain chemicals (combining chemicals with acetyl, a two carbon acetic acid molecule derived from vinegar from which a hydroxyl group has been removed) and changing their potency.  This is what Hoffmann did to salicylic acid, creating acetylsalicylic acid, which Bayer marketed as aspirin (‘a’ from acetyl and ‘spirin’ from spirea plants, such as Spiraea Ulmaria, commonly known as meadowsweet).  Acetylsalicylic acid had been discovered some years before, but it was Bayer’s marketing as a pain reliever which guaranteed the success of aspirin.  The first aspirin pill was introduced in 1900, however aspirin in powdered form remains available to this day.

An ad from Medical Mirror, a medical journal, 1900.

By boiling morphine (a derivative of opium) and acetic acid together for several hours in 1874, an English chemist, C. R. A. Wright, was the first to make diacetylmorphine.  After doing some initial testing on his pet dogs and observing they were listless, occasionally vomited, and scratched themselves a lot, Wright decided not to pursue the investigation.   In 1895 Heinrich Dreser, a Bayer Pharmaceutical chemist like Hoffmann, took the first steps toward a marketable diacetylmorphine.  Dreser worked closely with Hoffmann (though he once published against aspirin) at Bayer.  It’s believed he instructed Hoffman to perform further work on diacetylmorphine in 1897, and gets credit for renaming the chemical “heroin,” from the German heroish, because it made its users feel “heroic.”  Bayer originally conceived of heroin as a cheap alternative to codeine, another derivative of opium.  By acetylating morphine into heroin, Hoffmann created a powerful drug which was initially sold as a cough suppressant and was subsequently advertized in the Sears and Roebuck catalog (1902?).  Within several years there was global criticism of the addictive qualities of heroin, most countries eventually outlawed the drug, and today the United Nations has a major campaign against heroin (though some countries are choosing maintenance or decriminalization). 

The power of powder has been recently displayed in envelopes containing anthrax and delivered across America.  We’re under attack again.  If only the envelopes contained aspirin or heroin...  This latest attack is, unfortunately, still developing, however some background on anthrax and bioterrorism is known.

An anthrax bacterium.

A skinny approach: bacteria, the first cellular organisms, evolved 3.8 billion years ago as a means to protect genes from the environment; an estimated 10% of dried human body weight, if measured, would probably consist of various bacteria; anthrax bacteria most commonly infect cows, sheep, and related animals, was undoubtedly known in ancient times, with some believing that Moses and the Hebrew God engaged in bioterrorism (the "Fifth Plague") against the Egyptians, as described in Exodus 9:3-12; humans are infected by anthrax through physical contact, eating infected meat, and breathing spores–anthrax is from the Greek term for coal, as topical skin infections (cutaneous) develop a black, hard crust; the Soviet Union, Iraq, and homegrown American assholes have all considered using anthrax as a biological weapon; and we don’t know who is attacking us.

Yeah, Bin Laden is probably involved, but we’re not sure yet.  The Taliban, some countries, and Nation of Islam leader and racist scumbag, Louis Farrakhan, have asked for evidence Bin Laden was involved with the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, however these requests are disingenuous and further insult the victims and those seeking justice.  America is now admitting it has enemies and the list is long.  Bin Laden may be currently at the top of the list, but there are many after him.  The “war on terrorism,” Operation: Enduring Freedom, and the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan, is just the beginning.  No one knows how this chapter of American history will end.

The cultural phenomena of shared grief has moved on from previous events.  The assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lennon, the first steps on the Moon or the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger, the shooting of Reagan or the beginning of Operation: Desert Storm, Oklahoma City, and other hallmarks of recent history, have been pushed aside, perhaps forever.  We have Sept. 11, 2001, we have anthrax scares, we have war...

I’m sickened by those who quote the prophecies of Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce, or some long dead biblical author, to somehow attempt to hurt us further.  No one, other than those who are now warring against us, could have predicted recent and continuing events.  It serves no purpose, except to demonstrate manic ego issues, to say “I knew this would happen,” or some petty variation of “I told you so.”  We need to stop acting like “Monday morning quarterbacks” and “back-seat drivers,” and focus on today and the tasks ahead.

The power of powder reveals itself when it takes away the pain of a headache sufferer or transports a junkie into some realm without war and terrorist attacks.  I’ve never been one for aspirin, as I keep forgetting a couple of little pills can actually help.  As far as heroin is concerned, while that method of self-medication has never appealed to me, and I consider our “war on drugs” a hypocritical waste of time, money, and human resources, I would request junkies not purchase any heroin from Afghanistan or Pakistan, at this time.  Right.  Like junkies would boycott anything associated with the Taliban heroin trade...  Still, stranger things have happened and continue to.

Rethinking refined sugar and bleached flour,

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