When you hear the word “Bayer,” you probably think of Aspirin or maybe a prescription medication they make – and that’s exactly how the company likes it. Bayer has some pretty questionable history they certainly don’t want you to know about. From their war crimes in Nazi Germany to the use of tainted blood pools that gave thousands of hemophiliacs HIV, there’s a lot of dirty laundry in Bayer’s closet. Here are some of the most surprising facts you might not know.
10. Bayer Invented Heroin
To some people (particularly those who have studied the history of the drug trade), this is pretty common knowledge, but to the average person on the street, it’s mind-boggling that a company as big and as old as Bayer is responsible for creating one of the most dangerous and addictive drugs in history. To be fair, it’s not surprising so many people are unaware of Bayer’s connection with heroin because the company has done whatever it can to disassociate itself with its own creation; bragging to the world about the fact that they created Aspirin (which they originally ignored in favor of promoting heroin since both were developed at the same time), while trying to sweep the heroin-related history under the rug.
The drug that eventually became known as heroin was first created by C.R. Alder Wright in 1874, who was just running experiments with morphine and didn’t actually do anything with his creations. The drug wasn’t re-synthesized until 23 years later when it was independently recreated by chemist Felix Hoffman while working at the German company Aktiengesellschaft Farbenfabriken (which later became Bayer). Hoffman was told by his supervisor to turn morphine into codeine in order to create something less potent and less addictive. Instead, he created a drug up to two times potent than morphine.
Bayer actually created and patented the name Heroin (so-named because of the heroic feeling it gave users) and sold the drug as a cough suppressant – even marketing it specifically for use on children. They even marketed it as a cure for morphine addiction before discovering that the body quickly metabolizes it as morphine – essentially giving people a more powerful morphine high in less time.
The company lost many of its trademark rights related to Heroin (along with Aspirin) after the post-WWI Treaty of Versailles in 1919 (more on that later), at which time the drug started to be created by other outside agencies and eventually by drug dealers after it was made illegal in the US 1924.
9. Bayer Didn’t Technically Invent Aspirin
Despite giving scientist Felix Hoffman (the scientist responsible for creating Heroin), and itself in turn, credit for discovering acetylsalicylic acid, aka ASA or Aspirin, the drug was actually first developed in 1853 by Charles Frédéric Gerhardt and was recreated by multiple chemists through different processes before Hoffman discovered a better method for making acetylsalicylic acid. Most historians agree that Hoffman did his research and was well aware of the previously used methods of making ASA and thus didn’t even spontaneously invent the drug, but merely found a way to make it safer and less bitter tasting.
There is even evidence that Hoffman only worked on Aspirin at the directive of his boss, Arthur Eichengrün and thus didn’t even create it on his own accord – although this doesn’t take credit away from Bayer. Either way, Bayer chose to list Hoffman as the inventor on the 1899 US Patent of the drug, and the rest is corporate history.
8. Bayer Worked Hard to Keep Making Money in America in WWI
Bayer trademarked the name Aspirin in 1899 and the safe, effective drug that could help with both fevers and pain quickly became its biggest seller. By the 1914 outbreak of WWI though, many companies from all over the globe were selling their own version of the drug. It wasn’t long into the war before England shut out products manufactured by German companies, including Bayer, and by 1915, they voided the trademark Bayer had on the name Aspirin so anyone could use the name on their drugs.
Unfortunately for Bayer, they weren’t just losing markets, they were also having a hard time keeping up with production demand as one of the key ingredients needed for the synthesis of Aspirin was phenol, which was also used for explosives. Bayer still had a big market in the US and they had plants where they could manufacture Aspirin for sale in North America, but they had to find a supplier for phenol since they couldn’t get it from Germany – and that’s where the Great Phenol Plot came in.
The Great Phenol Plot was intended to not only help Bayer produce more Aspirin, but also help the German war effort in general. The plot was complex but largely involved using a shell corporation to buy excess phenol from Thomas Edison, who created his own factory to create the product, which was also needed to manufacture phonographs. The plot didn’t last long and within a few months, a briefcase containing details of the plot were discovered by a Secret Service agent. Though nothing about the plot was illegal since the US was still a neutral country at this point, those involved were subject to high scrutiny and scandal after the plot was leaked to the press. While the excess phenol was enough to keep Bayer’s Aspirin plant running, it destroyed their reputation.
After the exposure of the Great Phenol Plot, Bayer started setting up more shell corporations and subsidiaries in the US as a way to avoid losing control of their assets if the US entered the war. When the United States did declare war on Germany, Bayer started to be investigated – at which time they shifted their stock to a company that was technically owned by Americans but still controlled by the same German-American Bayer leaders. This ruse was quickly discovered, though, and the government soon took control of Bayer’s American holdings and then sold off all of the company’s trademarks and patents, including their name and logo, to medicine company Sterling Products, Inc. Bayer AG eventually bought the rights back to all of these names and trademarks in 1994.
7. The Company Manufactured Some of the Most Dangerous Gases Used in WWI
If there are two things anyone knows about WWI warfare, it’s 1) that the soldiers fought in trenches and 2) that poison gases were some of the worst weapons used in the war. Without Bayer, it’s likely those chemical weapons wouldn’t have been created. It all started near the start of the war when Bayer chairman Carl Duisberg was one of three men commissioned by the Ministry of War to find a use for the poisonous waste already being produced by chemical industries. The team recommended the use of chlorine gas, which Bayer then helped produce and send to the front lines. Duisberg was even there when the weapon was first tested.
Under Duisberg’s guidance, Bayer created even more deadly gases, starting with phosgene and later mustard gas. Over 60,000 people are estimated to have died from exposure to these gases in WWI and while not all of those deaths were at the hands of products created by Bayer, it’s possible that none of those deaths would have occurred if it wasn’t for the company.
6. Bayer’s War Crimes in WWII
After WWI, Bayer combined with a number of other chemical and medical companies in Germany, creating conglomerate IG Farben, one of a small handful of corporations that bankrolled the Nazi party and allowed Hitler to rise to power.
IG Farben held 40% of the stock for the company that manufactured Zyklon B, which was used to kill people in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, but that was far from their only role in the Holocaust. They were directly involved in some of the most terrible Nazi war crimes as none other than Joseph Mengele himself tested their drugs on Jewish twins who were otherwise healthy before intentionally being exposed to diseases. The company also performed their own experiments on Holocaust victims, buying them from the Nazis to be infected with diseases and used as human lab rats. Most of the drugs tested in these experiments killed everyone treated, a perfect example of the cure being worse than the disease.
IG Farben also extensively used slave labor from concentration camps, which Bayer apologized for in 1995. Unsurprisingly, the company continually tries to distance itself from the wrongdoings of IG Farben despite the fact that they were absorbed and then reborn from the company later on.
IG Farben was dismantled after WWII as a result of their war crimes and Bayer was reborn as an independent business. Don’t think for a second that they did everything possible to disassociate themselves from those crimes after the war; executive Fritz ter Meer was tried and convicted in the Nuremburg Trials (along with 23 other board members of IG Farben). He was sentenced to seven years in prison during the Nuremburg Trials and still was made head of the supervisory board of the company after his release.
5. Bayer Cut Corners to Make Hemophilia Medicine That Gave Patients AIDS
Some medicines, for example those used to treat hemophilia, are made from human blood. Unsurprisingly, it can be pretty easy to pass on dangerous diseases through those medications, which is why in the early 1980s, at the start of the AIDS epidemic, the federal government banned the use of prisoners, intravenous drug users, and gay men as donors for these medications. Their blood was considered high-risk and at the time there was no screening test for AIDS. But Bayer ignored these laws and used high-risk blood pools to produce their Factor VIII and IX clotting products for hemophiliacs. Even worse, because they combined the blood of all donors (over 10,000 people), even a tiny amount of donors with diseased blood were able to contaminate the entire pool.
What was supposed to be a drug that could save lives ended up being potentially deadly in itself. A 1985 test by the CDC found that 74% of hemophiliac patients using the medication tested positive for HIV. In the end, somewhere around 20,000 hemophiliacs from around the globe were infected with HIV as a result of using Bayer’s Factor VIII and IX. Since then, Bayer has paid out over $600 million in compensation for hemophiliacs who contracted the disease.
4. Bayer Kept Selling Their Potentially Contaminated Drugs Outside the US for Years
As if it wasn’t bad enough that Bayer needlessly exposed thousands of people to HIV, they willingly chose to keep selling the dangerous product in some countries even after pulling it from the shelves in the US and Europe. In fact, all it took to neutralize the HIV in the medication was to heat-treat it, which allowed the medication to still work effectively while killing off the deadly virus. But rather than pulling all of the old medication and beginning to sell only the safer version, they simply continued distributing the older stuff in Asian and Latin American countries instead. They even made new batches of the older version of the drug despite the risks because it was cheaper to manufacture.
Bayer still claims it acted “responsibly, ethically and humanely,” offering up multiple excuses for their behavior, saying customers doubted the newer drug’s effectiveness, that some countries were slow to approve the sale of the safer drug (many officials from these governments dispute these claims), and that a shortage of plasma had prevented them from making more of the new product (though they still were using plasma to make the old product). ”Decisions made nearly two decades ago were based on the best scientific information of the time and were consistent with the regulations in place,” they said.
Despite their statements, though, internal documents reveal that even at the time, Bayer knew what it was doing was wrong. In 1985, a company task force even asked ”Can we in good faith continue to ship nonheat-treated coagulation products to Japan?” and yet the company continued to do exactly that.
3. They Were Convicted for Medicaid Fraud Around the Turn of the Century
Federal law requires that Medicaid be charged the lowest possible price available for medications and if a company offers to sell a drug to a private insurance company or pharmacy for a lower price, they must issue a rebate to Medicaid. In brokering a deal with Kaiser Permanente in 1995, Bayer broke that law by agreeing to sell Kaiser the antibiotic Cipro for less than they charged Medicaid after Kaiser threatened to start using Johnson & Johnson’s cheaper Floxin instead. Rather than follow the law and notify Medicaid about the price change, which would require them to issue tens of millions of dollars in rebates, Bayer then followed Kaiser’s suggestion to relabel the drugs with Kaiser’s name and a different drug identification number. A year later, they started doing the same thing with their blood pressure medicine Adalat CC.
In 2003, Bayer reached a settlement with the government, still claiming their business dealings with Kaiser ”were responsible and conducted in good faith.” Despite their claims that they acted responsibly, they agreed to plead guilty and pay $257 million ($5.6 million for the over charges and $251.6 million in civil penalties) in what was the largest Medicaid fraud settlement in history at the time.
2. In Many Countries, Bayer Still Owns a Patent on Aspirin
It might surprise you, but after all the war crimes and all the times Bayer changed ownership, Bayer actually still owns the patent to Apsirin in some countries – 150 years after the drug was first synthesized. In fact, while the company lost its trademark in the US, the UK, and France during WWI, it has maintained those rights in Canada, Mexico, Germany, Switzerland, and over 75 other countries. While it may be a generic term for acetylsalicylic acid in many places, Aspirin still needs to be capitalized and used to refer to only Bayer’s product in all of those countires.
Bayer worked hard to maintain its patent and its brand recognition as much as possible – especially in its early days. When they started production in 1899, they gave doctors, hospitals, and pharmacists free samples and asked them to publish about its effectiveness. When other companies started producing their own versions of Aspirin, Bayer started producing the drug in pill form (it was originally sold as a powder) with a distinctive cross logo on the front. When the Pure Food and Drug Act required that trademark drugs have a generic name to be used in medical literature, the company intentionally created the complex generic name monoacetic acid ester of salicylic acid so doctors would only want to prescribe Aspirin rather than generic acetylsalicylic acid.
1. They Were Accused of Spreading the Spanish Flu to Increase Sales
Unlike the other items on the list, this one is just a conspiracy theory that is in no way true – but at the same time, Bayer probably wants to keep it a secret that ever since 1918 people have been accusing them of having intentionally spread the Spanish Flu. While the conspiracy theory itself might be bull, it’s easy to see why people believed in it: here was a German company selling one of the only things doctors were prescribing to help those with the epidemic. While the American-owned (on paper at least) version of Bayer was trying to do everything possible to promote a patriotic image during the war (even covering their ads in American eagles and flags), the public at large wasn’t buying it.
It’s worth noting that one researcher, Karen Starko, has made claims that many of the deaths associated with the Spanish Flu were actually caused by overdoses of Aspirin since the drug was still new and doctors didn’t understand how much to give patients or what the signs of Aspirin poisoning looked like. But even Starko has pointed out that this is purely conjecture since she couldn’t find any reliable autopsy reports on the victims to see if there were any signs of Aspirin poisoning.