- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 28, 2001

Germany's Bayer A.G., which makes Cipro, the drug to treat anthrax, is back in the news today, mired in controversy over whether it's prepared to meet American demand. Bayer's bouts with controversy, however, are scarcely new its first challenge occurred in World War I over a now-familiar drug, aspirin.
In 1900, aspirin was well on its way to becoming the most widely used drug in the world. Its main ingredient, acetylsalicylic acid, had been developed in the mid-19th century. Farbenfabriken vormals Friedrich Bayer & Co., a German dye company, held its patents and decided in 1903 to set up a factory in Rensselaer, N.Y., because the American market had become the biggest user of its dyes. Bayer received an American patent and trademark registration.
Bayer first sold aspirin as a powder to physicians and other drug firms. Just before World War I began in 1914, aspirin became a tablet product that sold well in the American market. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, the Rensselaer company had to walk a careful line between defending the excellence of its product and promoting American patriotism.
Complicating Bayer's public relations campaign was the fact that many physicians and the American Medical Association opposed the advertising of drugs.
War legislation had authorized the U.S. government to take over enemy property, even seize patents and copyrights, for the duration of the military crisis. Subsequent legislation authorized the feds to auction off enemy property. Bayer's judgment day came on Dec. 12, 1918, a month after the armistice was signed, when Sterling Products Inc. was the highest bidder at $5.3 million.
Sterling, located in Wheeling, W.Va., was scarcely a household name when it made Bayer the critical part of its expanding network of patent medicine firms. Sterling sold off the dye wing of Bayer and concentrated on selling aspirin all over the world, though Farbenfabriken Bayer had been doing that for years.
Sterling's edge was that, unlike Bayer, it had no qualms about advertising its products directly to the consumer. The military-political turmoil in Germany favored Sterling. Farbenfabriken Bayer had become part of a trust, I.G. Farben, a combination of several dye firms that suffered under the harsh provisions of the Treaty of Versailles that ended the war.
That changed in the early 1920s, when the two companies making Bayer aspirin on opposite sides of the Atlantic agreed to divide territory and share profits. It was a good deal for both, and profits flowed for a while.
The monopoly faded after original patents expired and other companies started to produce the drug. Sterling sued one such American firm over the use of the word aspirin and lost, and competitors multiplied in the 1920s, cutting into Sterling's market share.
When Germany attacked Poland in 1939 to touch off World War II, Sterling had agreements with I.G. Farben that made it subject to censure and even takeover by Allied countries, the same situation Sterling had benefited from in 1918. If Sterling attempted to violate the agreements, it ran the risk of angering German officials.
The American press got wind of Sterling's foreign business arrangement, which ultimately made money for Adolf Hitler. "Holding Hands With Hitler" was the headline of an article in Nation's Business magazine. Bayer aspirin sales plummeted.
In June 1941, the Treasury Department froze Sterling's assets, forcing the company to cut its German connections and replace important officers.
Of course, the American firm and its famous product survived the postwar era, with the company renamed Sterling Drug. The German company rose again as Bayer A.G., competing and sparring in court with its American counterpart. But it was a much more difficult analgesic world to compete in, and Bayer's role declined, thanks to new pain relievers and aspirin that added other ingredients, from buffers to caffeine.
Bayer pursued research and development of new drugs, including Cipro a drug that, like aspirin, is now a household word in America.

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