April 10, 2021

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, the frustrated discoverer of caffeine | Science

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, the frustrated discoverer of caffeine | Science

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge He is one of the few pharmacists who, in the 19th century, had a double doctorate. His tenacity to study, together with a good portion of luck in some of his discoveries, encumbraron him to occupy a prominent place in the history of pharmacy and chemistry with findings such as alkaloid caffeine, aniline, phenol, quinine , pyrrole, atropine, tar dyes and chromatography.

Despite the large number of discoveries made, highlights the caffeine, its importance and the casual way it occurred. This may also be the most universal, having provided scientific explanation to the human need to have coffee to activate in the morning. And today, who says coffee also says a cola with the same ingredient.

Of humble origin, Runge wanted to study at all costs with an iron faith in himself, so soon he opted for the pharmacy and then went to chemistry. From an oversight in his experiments emerged how to dilate the pupil with a drop of a belladonna plant, and a chance encounter with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe the challenge of analyzing some coffee beans and discover caffeine. But despite this career full of scientific successes, he survived as he could during the last years of his life with the frustration that nobody ever paid attention to his proposals to economically profit from his discoveries.

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge was born on this day as today, February 8, 1794. He was the third son of a Lutheran pastor in Billwerder, near Hamburg. After attending primary school in Schiffbeck, little Runge chose the profession of pharmacist, which allowed him to earn his own money very soon. With only 20 years he made the discovery of the mydriatic effect produced by the belladonna plant.

In October 1816 Runge enrolled in Medicine at the University of Berlin. Two years later he continued his studies in Göttingen, where he completed an internship in chemistry. He moved to Jena and a year later, in 1819, he obtained his PhD in Physics with botanical work on poisoning with belladonna and henbane.

His Chemistry teacher, Döbereiner, invited Goethe to see how Runge could change the eyes of cats with the extract of the belladonna plant. The still too young Runge appeared nervous, with a borrowed tuxedo and a cat in his arms. Goethe was surprised to notice the difference in the pupils of the cat and, impressed, gave him a box of coffee beans that he asked him to analyze chemically, and that was how in 1820 Runge discovered caffeine.

Ferdinand Runge returned to Berlin in 1819 to become a university professor. There he lived with the pharmacist and later physics professor Johann Christian Poggendorf, turning his house of bachelors into a laboratory with all kinds of experiments. Runge dedicated himself to study for a doctoral thesis in which he treated the indigo dye and its compounds with metallic salts and metal oxides.

He also wrote his book Recent phytochemical discoveries to establish scientific phytochemistry and he began to teach classes on plant and technical chemistry. In 1823 he undertook a trip to Paris, then the great center of chemical research, to perfect his studies, and when he returned he went to Wroclaw, although there was little, because he made a new trip through Germany, Switzerland, France, England and Holland.

In 1828, at the age of 33, Runge became an associate professor at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Wroclaw, but without a fixed salary. He gave lectures and devoted himself to his scientific studies, because his goal was to carry out chemical studies with direct practical benefits, so to dedicate himself more zealously to the practical application of chemistry, Runge left the University in 1831. A year later he assumed the technical management of a chemical factory in Oranienburg financed by the Prussian state. A year later, in the summer of 1833, he produced phenol and aniline by distillation of coal tar.

Runge was well aware of the potential use of the tar colors discovered, but the commercial director of the factory ignored all his industrial proposals. In close connection with his research on tar colors are also his experiments to measure the intensities of colors by performing so-called point reactions on filter paper.

In 1850 the State bought the factory and two years later Runge was dismissed when accused of spending little time at work – and it is true that he wrote at least seven books in that period. With a miserable pension that was left to pay when the owner died he began to live in poor conditions and fell into oblivion.

However, his passion for research was always stronger and he remained oriented to practical chemistry, dedicating himself to the production of artificial fertilizers and writing books, in particular his famous Maintenance letters, in which he gave advice on how to eliminate the herring smell of cutlery, how to remove rust stains from clothes, how to quickly marinate meat or make fruit wine. Wise recipes, which became very popular at that time and have reached our days. But also the farmers received advice on the disinfection of cow stations with bleaching powder (lime chloride) and the pharmacists knew, thanks to him, how to detect sugar in the urine.

The fields of work of Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge were always the chemistry of the plants and the tar dye, although he also excelled in inorganic chemistry. In 1862, 28 years after the discovery of coal tar dyes, he was honored at the Industrial Congress of London, and finally he also received recognition in the then Prussian capital of Berlin.

Runge, who never married, died at his residence in Oranienburg on March 25, 1867, at age 72, and was buried in the municipal cemetery. His great scientific work contrasts with the scant repercussion that his discoveries had in life, although his legacy has placed him among the most outstanding chemists of modern history.


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