Geek Trivia: Name dropping

What narcotic trademark was Bayer forced to forfeit under the Treaty of Versailles?

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Editor's note: Your old pal, the Trivia Geek, is off on another freakish adventure this week, so I've pulled this Classic Geek Trivia from our archives (which originally ran Oct. 8, 2003) and republished it, while preserving the original discussion posts. Look for a fresh batch of trivia on Oct. 27, 2004.

For a drug hailed as one of the most vital and indispensable inventions in history, aspirin certainly took a long and winding road to mass production and public acceptance. The core component of aspirin, salicin, occurs naturally in the bark of certain species of willow trees and was in use as far back as during the age of Hippocrates, in the fourth century B.C.

Yet the modern form of aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid, didn't emerge from development until 1853. Even then, this revolutionary discovery from French chemist Charles Frederic Gerhardt languished unexploited for almost another 50 years.

The problem with acetylsalicylic acid was that its, then, better-known forerunner, salicylic acid, had been in use since the 1820s as a pain killer and fever remedy, but early salicylate concoctions had a terrible reputation for being hard on the stomach. Failed efforts to buffer salicylic acid with sodium had soured chemists on the potential of stomach-friendly salicylate drugs, so the industry ignored acetylsalicylic acid until 1899, when Felix Hoffman, an employee of the German company Bayer, happened upon Gerhardt's discoveries.

Hoffman wanted a safe, effective remedy for his father's arthritis pain, and he persuaded reluctant Bayer executives to produce and market the drug. Bayer thus trademarked acetylsalicylic acid under the name Aspirin (with a capital A). The A was from the drug's chemical name, the spir was from the spiraea ulmaria plant from which chemists extracted salicylic acid, and the in was a common suffix for drugs.

Despite Bayer's reservations, Aspirin powder was a notable success, and the company began selling the drug in tablet form in 1915. The word Aspirin became so synonymous with pain relief that Bayer was required to forfeit its Aspirin trademark as part of Germany's World War I reparations stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

Of course, aspirin wasn't the only drug trademark that Bayer gave up under this treaty; a notable narcotic was also included in the reparations.


What notable narcotic trademark was German pharmaceutical giant Bayer required to give up as one of several World War I reparations under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles?

The drug in question was none other than Heroin (with a capital H), which Bayer registered as a trade name for the pharmaceutical diacetylmorphine in 1898. At the time, people regarded Heroin as a nonaddictive derivative of pure morphine, the pain killer and anesthetic considered both medically indispensable and dangerously habit-forming during the 19th century.

At the turn of the century, morphine was the drug of choice for treating pneumonia and tuberculosis, both of which were among the most destructive medical concerns of the time. Similarly, doctors used codeine to treat respiratory disease, but it had notable toxic side effects.

If Heroin was truly a nonaddictive substitute for morphine and a nontoxic replacement for codeine, Bayer was looking at an incalculable source of profit. Test subjects described the drug as making them feel "heroic" (heroisch in German), and thus the Heroin brand name and a drug sensation were born.

Heroin became the prime ingredient in many cough medicines as well as high-end respiratory treatments. Of course, claims that Heroin was nonhabit-forming were false, and within a few short years Heroin addiction was a known phenomenon.

Bayer survived the failure of Heroin on the strength of its Aspirin trademark. Still, both trademarks had become indisputable household names for their respective pharmaceuticals, accounting in part for the forfeitures required under the Treaty of Versailles.

Companies other than Bayer can now manufacture both drugs using the names aspirin (lowercase A) and heroin (lowercase H), but the United States banned the manufacture and use of heroin in any form in 1924.

Bayer, for its part, has spent decades fighting for the right to market aspirin as a trademark, and it's fought the slang use of the word heroin to describe diacetylmorphine street drugs, rather than proper pharmaceuticals.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week, we have not so much a quibble as an addendum since so many readers felt compelled to comment on Col. Jim Kittinger in response to the Sept. 15 edition of Geek Trivia, "A leap of fakes." This particular comment comes from TechRepublic member Bill Ward, but several members recounted the event.

"August 16, 1960 is the date when a U.S. Air Force officer 'jumped from space', with a 102,800-foot jump. (They used a balloon to get above the stratosphere.)… As for the 'astronaut' (Col. Kittinger) who made the jump, he had to wear a pressure suit; he had a malfunction that caused the suit to lose pressure in one of the hands, while, during the jump, he nearly went supersonic before hitting his stabilizing chute."

Thanks to everybody for reminding us all of this fearless bit of geek trivia.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.