A Brief History of Pain Relief

From Coal Tar to Tylenol


also known as "painkillers," an analgesic is any drug used to reduce pain.

There are three main types of analgesics. To view a timeline of their development scroll to the right or click the arrow.

derived from Willow Tree Bark
derived from Coal Tar
derived from Opium Poppies
Sumerian Tablet
5000 BC
The clay tablets of the Sumerians contain the earliest written reference to the cultivation of opium. The Sumerian ideograph for poppies translates to ”joy plant.”
Ebers Papyrus
1500 BC
The Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical text, contains references to willow’s pain and fever-reducing qualities.
Telemachus is given opium
800 BC
The ancient greeks employed opium for both medicinal and recreational purposes. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Telemachus takes it to momentarily forget his worries.
Portrait of Hippocrates
400 BC
Hippocrates, considered the father of modern medicine, used a powder made from the bark and leaves of willow trees to provide relief from various pains including headaches.
Illustrations from Dioscorides' pharmacopeia
80 BCE
The Greek physician Dioscorides compiled a five-volume collection of cures that included willow bark. The pharmacopeia ciriculated widely in Latin, Greek and Arabic.
Portrait of Paracelsus
1527 BCE
After a period of disuse, opium was reintroduced to European medicine by Paraclesus, who returned from Arabia with laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol, in the pommel of his sword.
Bottle of Laudanum
1660s BCE
Thomas Sydenham, sometimes called the “English Hippocrates,” popularized laudanum as an effective pain relief treatment.
Portrait of Paracelsus
1763 BCE
The English chaplain Edward Stone recommended willow bark powder as an inexpensive alternative to Peruvian bark (quinine) in treating malaria.
Morpheus, the Greek God
1804 BCE
Friedrich Serturner isolated the active ingredient in opium and named it morphium. The successful isolation marked the beginning of the pharmaceutical industry.
Chemistry Equipment
1838 BCE
The Italian sicentist Raffaele Piria, building on the work of many other scientists, developed a method of extracting a potent acid form of the active ingredients of willow bark.
Intestinal Worms
1886 BCE
A dispensing error in an attempt to treat intestinal worms led to the discovery that coal tar derived acetanilide was an effective fever reducer. It was succesfully marketed as Antifebrin.
Various Dyes
From Dye Waste to Medicine
The success of Antifebrin prompted companies in the lucrative dye manufacturing business to undertake research on the possible medicinal uses of the coal tar waste left over from dye production.
Friedrech Bayer
1887 BCE
Researchers at the dye-company Friedrech Bayer & Co. developed phenacetin, an effective fever reducer with fewer side effects than Antifebrin. Phenacetin became a widely used headache cure.
Joseph von Mering
1893 BCE
Germany’s top physiologist, Joseph von Mering, tested the new drug paracetamol (acetaminophen) and foud it inferior to phenacetin. Acetaminophen is what we now know as Tylenol.
Bayer Aspirin
1897 BCE
Researchers at Bayer sythesized a form of salicylic acid out of coal tar waste. This purer form had fewer side effects than the willow bark extract and was successfully marketed as Aspirin.
1897 BCE
The same researchers who developed Aspirin synthesize Heroin. Heroin was marketed as a non-addictive morphine substitute until 1910 when it was found to actually be more potent.
1948 BCE
The acetaminophen side effects von Mering reported were challenged by American researchers and acetaminophen was “rediscovered.”
1961 BCE
McNeil Laboraties began marketing Tylenol tablets. As concerns about the effect of Aspirin on the stomach grew, Tylenol was seen as a safer alternative.
Aspirin continues to provide effective pain relief today. Concerns about its effect on the stomach also remain, particularly in the case of children.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) continues to be widely used, though there are increasing concerns about its effect on the liver. Large doses have been shown to cause liver failure. The cumulative effect of small doses over time continues to be investigated.
For sheer relief from pain, morphine remains our most powerful tool, but the risk of addiction makes it inappopriate for most situations. Synthesized forms make up part of many prescription drugs such as Oxycontin and Percocet.