By the first decade of the twentieth century heroin addiction had become a huge problem in major American cities such as New York. The drug was not cheap and some people experiencing addiction resorted to supporting their habit by rifling through junkyards for scrap metal that they could sell. Interestingly, heroin was introduced by the Bayer Company in 1897 as a non-habit forming version of morphine. It was originally synthesized in 1874 by C.R. Wright, an English chemist who hoped to improve the properties of morphine by altering its molecular structure. Wright treated morphine with acetic anhydride to form diacetylmorphine which appeared to be a more powerful pain killer and less addictive than morphine.
This discovery was lost for almost twenty five years, until Heinrich Dreser, who headed the pharmaceutical division of Bayer, saw a marketing opportunity. He asked one of his chemists, Felix Hoffman, to come up with a viable synthesis. Hoffman, who just two weeks before had synthesized aspirin, came up with a way to convert morphine to heroin on a commercial basis. Dreser designed an advertising campaign to promote heroin as a more powerful pain killer than morphine, and as an effective cough suppressant. Heroin did work against pain and coughs, very desirable in those days since chronic coughing due to pneumonia and tuberculosis affected millions. It didn’t take long, though, for heroin to lose its halo. It soon became clear that this wonder drug was more addictive than morphine, and by 1913, Bayer stopped producing it. Luckily for the company, Hoffman’s other drug, aspirin was not saddled with such problems and became a best seller. It is noteworthy that prior to stopping production of heroin, Bayer advertised both heroin and aspirin on the same billboards. Rumour had it that Dreser himself had become addicted to heroin. This was never confirmed, but he did die of a stroke in 1924. Had he taken his other drug, aspirin, regularly, he may have averted early death as so many people do today.