How Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge Changed Chemistry Forever

As you sip your morning cup of coffee and consider the caffeine that will give you a jump start for the day, have you ever wondered who first identified the compound and its properties? We owe much of our current knowledge of the highly prized stimulant to a man who was born more than two and a quarter centuries ago. Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge was the first scientist to identify caffeine. He is accurately credited with changing the world of chemistry forever and here is his inspiring story.

Who is Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge?

Runge was born near Hamburg, Germany in the year 1795. His father was a Lutheran pastor, but he had a passion for science and was fascinated with chemistry since he was a child. He was conducting experiments while still in his teens. The precocious young man continued experimenting with many substances which led to a multitude of scientific discoveries that now serve as the basis of many of our modern explanations for chemical interactions.

His first major discovery: Belladonna

Runge was experimenting with a potentially deadly extract of belladonna. The solution accidentally splashed into his eye. He observed that the solution dilated his pupils. A decade passed since this incident before he joined forces with his mentor Johann Wolfgang Dobereiner. He convinced Runge to perform the experiment again for writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who was impressed with what he saw.

A chance encounter with a bag of coffee beans

Goethe was interested in the chemical composition of coffee beans and he handed the 25-year-old Runge a bag and commissioned the experimentation. Through the knowledge that he gained at University, Runge identified the active ingredients in the beans and discovered caffeine, identifying it for the first time in history. This set a precedent that would help the world to understand why people who consume beverages made from the beans experience a stimulant effect.

Runge invented paper chromatography

Paper chromatography is one of the first techniques invented for separating chemical substances. Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge is believed to be the first chemist to develop this method, which has been used to separate and identify a host of chemical compounds. In a similar vein, he developed an extraction method for separating the sugar out of beet juice, which had a significant impact on the food industry.

His discoveries contributed to the rise of the textile industry

Runge accepted a job working for a chemical company. While employed there, he invented a type of dye made of coal tar, along with an effective method for dying fabrics that were used to make clothes. His invention was the first coal tar dye in the world. This changed the way that clothing was made and offered a variety of color choices. This was in part, a significant boost in a growing textile industry which led to the rise of the Industrial Revolution. He is also credited with a major role in the advancement of the age of Enlightenment when a myriad of scientific discoveries forever changed the world with more sophisticated factories producing different and better quality products. His discoveries had a domino effect that offered a foundation for later chemists to build upon

His contributions to the medical community

Many of the methods that Runge developed for the separation and isolation of chemical compounds are used throughout industries throughout the world, as well as in the research and medical communities. Runge was the first chemist to isolate and identify quinine. Although he did not receive the credit due during his lifetime, his work with cinchona bark and discovery of quinine gave the world a life-saving drug that became the first antimalarial treatment to show efficacy in combating the disease. The chemists who received credit for the discovery were a year behind Runge in his work.

Runge’s early discoveries led to modern conveniences

To fully appreciate the foundational contributions that Runge made to the world of chemistry, consider all of the modern conveniences that most of us take for granted. When you look in your pantry and find canned foods that contain meats and vegetables or the wine in the cellar, Runge developed many of the processes that led to the safe preservation of these foods and the processes that are now used to create these convenience foods. His work also included processes for making wines from fruits and more. He even discovered an effective way to remove stains from fabrics.

Receiving his due credit post-mortem

Freidlieb Ferdinand Runge was a bachelor his entire life. He had achieved a doctorate degree from the University of Berlin, and he was a professor at the University of Breslau for a period of time. He taught others what he had learned and passed on his knowledge, which led to more questions, research and discovery. He left the academic world to work at a chemical company where he continued to make new discoveries and to invent new processes that would help to usher in the Age of Enlightenment. His life work was credited to those who came behind him, but he still continued to make important contributions until he was no longer able. Runge lost his job because of a disagreement with the owner of the chemical company and he did not recover financially. Sadly, he passed away on March 25, 1867, poverty-stricken, at age 73. Most of his great accomplishments had not yet been recognized officially, nor credited to the brilliant chemist who has given so much to enhance the advancement of the world he lived in. His contributions are recognized over 200 years after his death and they are recognized as a platform for the science that we now use to save lives through a greater understanding of the different compounds in plants, and how they can cure illness. We enjoy brightly colored fabrics in our clothing and home decor. We also thrive on the boost that our morning cup of coffee provides and we salute Dr. Freidlieb Ferdinand Runge for making the world a better place for us all.


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