Local blue plaques: The Revd Edward Stone

aspirinblueplaque01This magazine’s series of articles on local blue plaques, continues with the blue plaque to be found on the site of the old Hitchman Brewery in West Street, Chipping Norton, a plaque denoting the home of The Revd Edward Stone.  This multi-faceted minister was instrumental in the development of the humble aspirin.

Edward Stone was born outside Princes Risborough in 1702.  After attending Wadham College he took holy orders before becoming a curate at Charlton on Otmoor.  Several curacies followed and he was chosen to be chaplain to Sir Jonathan Cape, the 1st baronet of Bruern Abbey.

It was while out walking in the meadows around Chipping Norton, and suffering from ‘the agues’, that he nibbled a strip of willow bark, finding it to be very bitter.  Its bitterness reminded him of the reputation of the Peruvian cinchona tree which, in its turn, was the source of quinine, a known curative for malaria.

Edward’s curiosity was aroused.  After collecting a small supply of the willow bark, he dried it beside a baker’s oven behind his house, ground it down into powder and searched out several human guinea pigs for his theories.  It worked – not in every case – but it undoubtedly was “a powerful astringent and very efficacious in agues and intermitting disorders.”  The recommended dosage was two scruples (one scruple was equal to 1/24 ounce).  By a certain amount of good fortune, he had discovered salicylic acid, the active ingredient of aspirin. The year was 1763.

It seems very strange that the discovery took so long to develop.  In fact it wasn’t until 1899, well over a hundred years since Edward Stone’s discovery, that aspirin was recognised and marketed as a registered drug.  Why the delay?  After all, it was Hippocrates back in 400BC who prescribed  a derivative of willow bark to reduce fever and pain.  After Stone’s work, further refinement of salicylic acid was needed to eliminate harmful side effects.  This took time – a long time. So, it was not until 1899 that the Bayer company produced the tablet that is so well-known today as aspirin.  Incidentally, the name ‘aspirin’ derives from the old Latin name for meadowsweet, a common wildflower found in damp ground, notably down the lane between Milton and Lyneham, a wildflower that is also a source of salicylic acid. 

That blue plaque in Chipping Norton is a reminder of a very special character – not only an apothecary of lasting note, but a preacher and astronomer.  There cannot be many readers whose headaches have not been eased by his discovery.

August – September 2020