Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, who is celebrated in today’s Google doodle, was the discoverer of caffeine and the first person to isolate quinine, but his contribution to chemistry is often overlooked.
He also invented paper chromatography, a method for separating chemicals which is widely used in teaching labs.
Runge was born in Germany in 1794, the son of a pastor and the third of seven children. While working as an apprentice in his uncle’s pharmacy, he got a drop of henbane juice in his eye, and noticed that his pupil dilated. Based on experiments on a cat’s eye, he went on to write a dissertation on the toxic effects of atropine, a chemical found in plants like henbane and deadly nightshade. Atropine blocks receptors for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which is released by the nervous system to activate muscles.
Runge studied chemistry at the University of Jena, Germany, under J. W. Döbereiner, an adviser to the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His fellow students called him “Dr Gift” – the German word for poison. Döbereiner arranged for Runge to perform a demonstration of atropine’s ability to make cats’ pupils dilate for Goethe. Goethe was suitably impressed, and at the end of their meeting he presented Runge with a packet of coffee beans, suggesting that their chemical components might be worth investigating. Runge studied the beans, and later that year, he discovered caffeine.
In 1819, while still a student, Runge made another remarkable discovery for which he is seldom credited, isolating quinine from cinchona bark. The discovery of quinine, the first effective antimalarial compound, is usually attributed to Pierre Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Bienaimé Caventou, who reported their work a year later.
At the time, students in Germany had to do their oral doctoral examination in Latin, but Runge only went to elementary school and had not learned any other languages. He got through the exam by blurting out stock phrases such as “practica est multiplex” (practice is varied); “post nubila phoebus” (after the clouds, the sun); and “errare est humanum” (to err is human).
In his later years, Runge, a lifelong bachelor, directed his chemical knowledge towards household problems, such as removing stains, making wines from fruits, canning meats and vegetables, and showing off his culinary skill at dinner parties.
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