I am sitting on a windowsill at Asturias Airport. It’s summer, sparkle. It has been ten minutes since the time that, theoretically, the press bus would have to come to pick us up. It will be another ten until I assume that he has dumped me 50 kilometers from Oviedo. Meanwhile, I have bought pipes.
Therefore, the first thing the taxi driver tells me when I get into the car is that you cannot eat inside the vehicle. And I say very good, I say great. We spent a while in silence, but I ended up asking him about the mining basins. “Oh, the mining basins are fatal“Thus begins my trip to the world capital of aspirin and to two different Asturias. The industrial Asturias that no longer exists and the technological one that refuses to disappear.
A taxi to Langreo
Emilio, who is the name of the taxi driver, is a little over 60 years old, he is from La Utrera and arrived in Asturias while still a kid. “Basins have always been a place of money. Above all, the area where you go, where the state mining was. Now it’s something else“.
“I, from what I read, eh? I think it may be one of the few factories that is doing well. Next to that, they closed a very fat one recently.” And since there are many kilometers, he begins to review all the Asturian factories that are powerful, continues with the story of how the industrial Asturias that welcomed him disappeared and we ended up talking about cholesterol and excesses with food.
This explains why he came to Langreo impregnated with that strange feeling of yearning for a past that you know you can’t miss because it was so much worse than there is today. But the thing is, Emilio tells me, doing nothing day after day is several times worse than risking your life in a well. For this reason, the taxi driver (the taxi driver!), Who lives in Avilés and does not take aspirin, asks me to treat the factory well, because “they already have few good ones.” We will see.
Let’s take a little detour. And yes, I am aware that this is going to sound weird, but in the mid-19th century, no one believed that the fledgling pharmaceutical industry was an interesting thing. The money was elsewhere. The few drugs we had were very bad and, it must be said, not very profitable.
So when Charles F. Gerhardt, a French chemist, first synthesized acetylsalicylic acid in 1853, nothing happened. Nobody paid him the slightest attention. Bayer didn’t even exist (and when it did, ten years later, it was born as a dye factory with little interest in health).
Then came the great medical revolution and the world changed so much in the next 50 years that it seemed brand new, brand new. By 1896, when Felix Hoffmann he found a stable way to synthesize acetylsalicylic acidBayer was a pharmaceutical company worthy of the name. In less than two years aspirin was on the market: it quickly became the most famous medicine in the world.
Charcoal that heals
Y “Not all the aspirin in the world is made here, but almost“They tell me. The ‘here’ is a town in the Asturias mining basin. The ‘almost’ is somewhat more complex. In La Felguera, filling hundreds of 800-kilo bags, it is stored (and is manufactured) all the acetylsalicylic acid that Bayer sells. It is not all that is manufactured in the world, there are other companies that make it on their own (“especially in China, there are many Chinese”, explains an employee); but “aspirin aspirin is only made here ·.
It’s curious. Is or are more than 216 million pills every day And it’s something that employees repeat a lot. The other thing they repeat, especially the factory manager, is that “it is no coincidence that the plant is in Asturias where there are abundant mining and steel resources. ”And he says it on purpose, it shows.
That phrase makes ‘crack’ in people’s heads: What will mining and steelmaking have to do with making pills? What’s more, what will it have to do with a medication that, as its name suggests, comes from the bark of willows? The answer is called ‘Organic synthesis‘. That is, about our ability to create complex biomolecules from inorganic materials; that is, to take a by-product of coke (phenol) and, with a handful of other compounds, make an aspirin.
Coke, to continue with the example, is a derivative of coal that was used in blast furnaces to work iron. Mines and steelworks. La Felguera, along with the largest steel industry in the country and a stone’s throw from the coal pits, was the best place in the world to manufacture medicines. And yet the factory did not emerge alone. It was not by chance, but it is not a necessary result either.
One, large and industrialized
It is true. The factory cannot be understood without mining Asturias, but neither can it be understood without the terrible Spanish industrial policy. And it is that the birth of Proquisa (Synthetic Chemical Products), the previous name of the factory, cannot be isolated from Franco’s efforts to industrialize Spain in its strategy of ‘reconstruction and autarky’ after the Civil War.
Until then, the Spanish chemical and pharmaceutical industry had been controlled by large foreign companies (Bayer, Schering, Merck and Boehringer). In fact, many of these companies they were mainly dedicated to repackaging products that came from Germany. They had the knowledge and fighting them was very complex.
But the Civil War first, and the postwar German implosion later, changed all this. The Commission for the Blocking of Foreign Assets expropriated German companies and sold them to the big banks of the moment. Proquisa, in the hands of the Urquijo, Hispanoamericano and Herrero banks, bought the Bayer brand in Spain for 45 million pesetas. That was the future.
The failure of autarky
Plans did not go well. The dictatorship did what it could. Spain found itself with a lot of machinery, brands and laboratories, but the technical control of production had been German and if they wanted to survive they needed to partner with Germany again. That made the expropriations not as traumatic for the Germans as it might seem to us.
Almost immediately, Proquisa (like the rest of the companies in its situation) was forced to establish agreements and acquire industrial franchises with parent companies. The result is that, starting in 1958 and in what can be considered the strangest subsidy in history, the signing of the Spanish-German Agreement opens the door for German companies to start buying these new corporations promoted by the Dictatorship. In ten years, Bayer had already acquired La Felguera.
From there to the world
Between 1958 and 2014 (when Bayer decided to concentrate all world production in La Felguera), a lot happened. Y Bayer did not always bet heavily on the factory. At the beginning of the 60s, in the middle of the purchase process, Bayer decided that it wanted to seize the opportunity and build a large chemical complex in Spain. La Felguera was thoroughly examined between 1960 and 1961. The report that reached Leverkusen was so devastating that the Germans, shocked, quickly dismissed it.
By now, I’m already at the factory chatting with a couple of employees. And I ask them about that. On How is it possible that 50 years ago the factory was a horror and today it is a reference for the German pharmaceutical company. What they answer me is an infomercial. It usually happens, it is what happens in this type of visit and it is logical. Every employee knows that journalists are unreliable people.
But as we walk back to the door, an older little man (on the brink, I reckon, of retirement) comes up to me and says “what has happened is that we have changed a lot“.” This is not the factory I started working for. It is in the same place, it manufactures the same things, but it is a completely different factory. “I have no notes on this, I quote from memory. Javier Fernandez, the President of the Principality. Smile, a little proud. “We have changed a lot,” he repeats.
“What’s the secret?” I ask him. “Work hard and cross your fingers“The history of Asturias, the history of any country.
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