Bizzare Medical Treatments: Bayer Heroin

Bayer heroin advertisement.

Bayer AG, a multibillion dollar, German pharmaceutical company is regarded as one of the leaders in its sector, producing mild painkillers such as Bayer Aspirin and Aleve, the vitamin C supplements Redoxon and Berocca, and many other well known drugs. This reputation combined with the angelic sounding tagline on their website, “Bayer: Science For A Better Life” makes it hard to believe that in 1895, the company marketed heroin as a cough suppressant.

Acetylation of morphine, by way of acetic anhydride (Ac2O), to synthesize heroin.

Heroin is an opiate synthesized by adding two acetyl groups to morphine, found in the opium poppy. When Bayer introduced this new drug, it was actually meant to be a non-addictive substitute for morphine, a common cough suppressant back then. Little did they know that their well intentioned discovery would eventually become one of the most abused drugs, known for its destructive effects on the human body. It turns out that heroin crosses through the blood brain barrier 100 times faster than morphine because the acetyl groups makes it highly soluble in lipids; once it crosses the barrier, it actually turns back into morphine. Essentially, heroin is a prodrug, a class of inactive drugs that are converted into active form in the body by normal metabolic processes. To the Bayer scientists, heroin may have looked less potent from morphine on the lab bench, but in the body, it ended up being a faster acting form of morphine, making it extremely dangerous and addictive. Needless to say, even though heroin actually does help stifle coughs, Bayer eventually pulled this product off of their catalog.

Though today, the possession or selling of heroin is illegal in most parts of the world, it can actually be used in the United Kingdom legally, under careful control,  as an analgesic and a maintenance drug.


Common long term effects of heroin.


Image Sources:×189/heroin_synthesis.png

Ivan Pham
Ivan is a senior undergraduate biomedical engineering major at Georgia Tech. Outside of schoolwork he has interests in cars, eating, kayaking, and traveling. He is also passionate about economics, international affairs, and public health. His short term plan is to attend graduate school and work in medical device R&D.