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Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug – Diarmuid Jeffreys ****

Sometimes the subject of a popular science book is obvious – a topic like the human genome or the big bang leaps out as something we will want to know about. But every now and then a book comes along on a topic that really isn’t something you’ve ever thought about, yet the treatment makes it fascinating. That’s the case with this book – which in one way is a shame, because it may not rush off the shelf. Who wants to read a book about aspirin, you might think. Answer: you do, it’s great!
Like all the best popular science, this isn’t so much a book about aspirin as a book about the people that made aspirin possible, the circumstances that led to aspirin and a whole lot of associated stuff that’s just fascinating. Along the way you will meet an Oxfordshire parson chewing tree bark (life can be quite boring in Oxfordshire) and a gifted New Zealander who brought modern advertising zest to selling aspirin, first in Australia, then around the world.
Some of the most fascinating aspects of the story aren’t about aspirin itself. It’s finding out that heroin was a trademark of the same company that named aspirin (and heroin was intended to be a cough medicine, safe even for infants), or the origins of some of the great contenders to the aspirin throne like paracetamol (acetaminophen) and ibruprufen.
At the heart of the book, though is aspirin’s rise and rise, from being seen as a cheap alternative to quinine, through its heyday as a painkiller to its modern use in countering heart disease.
Jeffreys gets the balance just right. You find out about the business struggles amongst the early pharmaceutical companies (when aspirin was first manufactured they hardly existed), about the scientific breakthroughs and the medical surprises. His style is enjoyable, the book a triumph on a subject that few would think worthy of covering.
Good stuff indeed. Don’t you feel the need to take an Aspirin (or at least to read one)?

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Review by Brian Clegg


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