Who knows what Felix Hoffmann must have thought on that 21st of August 1897 when he came up with the acetylation of morphine. A few days before, on the 10th of August, he had succeeded in the acetylation of the acetylsalicylic acid, substance later on known as Aspirin. However on that 21st of August, Hoffmann perhaps was even more surprised for his other discovery, which would have become popular with the legendary name of


The name was picked up to celebrate the properties of the substance which was believed to not be addictive as the morphine was, as well as it was thought to soothe from several pathologies.

Hoffmann, working as a chemist in the German Bayer, back then a tiny business, was dealing with a wider project guided by the Jewish chemist Arthur Eichengrün, whose intuitions formed the basis of the process of synthesis  which led to the realisation of the Aspirin.

Obviously it is not known what Hoffmann thought on that 21st of August, but it is clear  that many people, when the “Heroin”medicine was put on the market in 1899, felt extremely better through its assumption.

Below: picture of the chemist Felix Hoffmann

The effects of heroin seemed miraculous:

With tuberculosis it was able to substantially reduce the shortness of breath, which initially was mistaken as an effective cure when instead it was just the symptom of the sedation of the breathing centers which leads, in case of overdose, to death.

Heroin, in fact, was born as a more efficient molecule than codeine when it came to reduce the struggle from cough in people with breathing issues, and its synthesis seemed to go right towards that direction.

Below: heroin bottle sold by the multinational pharmaceutical Bayer

The results of the commercialisation of the medicine were surprising. Bayer became an extremely rich multinational pharmaceutical company and “Heroin” the most sold product in the world. Heroin became a drug of common use in order to treat pathologies of all kinds in adults, children and pregnant women.

Its most extreme use was the one of reduction of sexual impulse in people affected by nymphomania,  who would see their stimulus decreased by the hallucinogenic substance.

Bayer was not the only pharmaceutical company to product heroin but over 19 businesses  all over the world joined them in the distribution of heroin in massive quantities. In 1905 in New York, the consumption of such a drug was 2 tonnes; in Egypt in 1930 one person out of 28 was addicted to the substance. In China the heroin replaced the opium in form of tablets to smoke, and in general in many countries of the world the mixture was used and naturally abused.

The scientific world in the meantime realised the negative effects of the substance on the population and, in 1925, almost 30 years after its first entry into the market, the US made  illegal the commercialisation of heroin. In the same year many other countries followed their example. The very last countries which implemented the norms were Czechoslovakia and Portugal, that banned heroin from their shop only in the early 60’s.

Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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