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Have you ever caught a glimpse behind the mirror of a medicine cabinet that was not your own? Decorum frowns on such actions; there is something inherently personal in there. In 2015, journalist Katy Schneider did what could be perceived as just another human-interest piece for New York Magazine when she somehow convinced five people to open one of their most private spaces—the medicine cabinet (Schneider in 5 New Yorkers open their medicine cabinets. New Yorker Magazine, pp 1–7, 2015). However, with great insight, she was sanctioned a behind-the-scenes-tour into the inner sanctum of a pharmacist, a dancer, a model, a former dental assistant, and a drag queen.
KeywordsChemistry Laboratory Late Nineteenth Century Private Space Historical Scholarship Active Reagent
Have you ever caught a glimpse behind the mirror of a medicine cabinet that was not your own? Decorum frowns on such actions; there is something inherently personal in there. In 2015, journalist Katy Schneider did what could be perceived as just another human-interest piece for New York Magazine when she somehow convinced five people to open one of their most private spaces—the medicine cabinet . However, with great insight, she was sanctioned a behind-the-scenes-tour into the inner sanctum of a pharmacist, a dancer, a model, a former dental assistant, and a drag queen. Photographer Bobby Doherty provided an image of each interior, and the owners gave a brief synopsis, with some cogent analysis and humorous admissions, of the contents of this private space.
The pharmacist, right on cue, divided the space into two areas, one for daily maintenance, and the other for situations that might arise, like Band-Aids for cuts and scrapes. The dancer emphasized the effects of the harsh New York winter on the sinuses. The model touted the perks of constantly receiving swag from her profession, especially in the form of beauty products. The former dental assistant shared a private vignette concerning her battle with lupus, and the bevy of pharmaceuticals that were needed to win this war. Finally, the drag queen espoused the benefits of essential oils, and explained how to concoct special deodorants and mouthwashes that promote natural health. Each of these individuals, and their respective medicine cabinets, all had one major theme in common, they all possessed pharmaceuticals whose sole purpose was alleviating and preventing pain; what could be characterized as a personal one-stop shop for treating you. Interestingly enough, most of these cabinets contained some form of one the most important and longest-lasting medications to ever come from a chemistry laboratory—aspirin .
This is the story of how aspirin entered the medicine cabinet. After 1899, it became a permanent fixture inside this private space, but as the century wore on other products could be found inside. Despite this rampant competition, aspirin remained. Despite being termed a “miracle drug” by generations of aspirin consumers, it is actually a tale of contradictions. Aspirin evolved through time. Questions abound. Invented or re-invented? What is the proper dosage for an average male or female? If it is really the same formula, how do successive generations market aspirin to the general public? From a global perspective, how did the violence that was exhibited over the course of the twentieth-century compare with the development of a medication that sought to relieve analgesic pain? Most importantly, how did aspirin, which began in the modern chemistry lab, finally get translated into medicine? Aspirin , the solution to the headache and the panacea for heart-related issues, serves to this day as an answer to pain. In other words, its history is much more than something common, but despite this assertion, it was not born from a miracle.
The historical scholarship of aspirin is diverse, but most research has focused on the drug’s impact on society, how it was marketed, or the politics of the business deals behind the ownership of the patents [2, 3]. However, few works have synthesized the study and development of modern aspirin by placing it firmly in the realm of the organic chemistry lab. During the late nineteenth century in Europe and the United States, labs began to push the limits of chemistry. Rather than isolating natural species or compounding other known active reagents, the birth of aspirin signaled the beginning of a new synthetic class of pharmaceuticals.
This piece seeks to tell aspirin’s story through the lens of three spaces, the chemistry lab, the medicine cabinet, and the doctor’s office , where this drug evolved over the course of modern history. By examining each of these spaces, we can see how aspirin’s role over the course of twentieth century and into the next, changed how the prescribing of medicine impacted the prosecution of pain, and reinvented the notion of prevention.
First, the late nineteenth century chemistry laboratory, which was an integral location to aspirin’s birth, became the gateway for new pharmaceuticals, as a race ensued to find answers to the most perplexing questions across multiple fields. The lab, first housed at universities and then within major companies, became an intersection where education, industry, medicine, technology, government and economics all combined to try to solve issues that plagued nations.
Second, a relatively new space within the home, the bathroom, and its indispensable inner sanctum, the medicine cabinet, blossomed with a meteoric effect before the First World War . Competition for space in the room within the room bred opportunity for companies, their agents and attorneys, and of course, for the consumers. This is a tale that encompasses a complex assortment of characters and deals, patents and plots, which were motivated by the search for unmitigated profits. Print, radio, and eventually television, all vied for sales.
Lastly, during the post-War era, the doctor’s office became a complex space where a new cadre of medical school trained physicians and evidence-based scientists interpreted the results from the research laboratory. Alongside this shift in professionalization , the development of a highly competitive pharmaceutical industry intersected with the debate over heart health to push aspirin in new directions that were previously unfathomable.
- 1.Schneider K (2015) 5 New Yorkers open their medicine cabinets. New Yorker Magazine, pp 1–7 June 8Google Scholar
- 2.Mann C, Plummer M (1991) The aspirin wars: money, medicine, and 100 years of rampant competition. Knopf, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- 3.Jeffreys D (2004) Aspirin: the remarkable story of a wonder drug. Bloomsbury, LondonGoogle Scholar