Today in Science History – February 10 – Ira Ramsen and the Sweet Discovery of Saccharine

Ira Remsen

Ira Remsen (1846 – 1927)

February 10 is Ira Remsen’s birthday.

Remsen was an American chemist and educator who brought many German chemical techniques to America. He founded the chemistry department at Johns Hopkins University and served as the second president of the university. He also founded the American Chemical Journal and acted as its editor for 35 years. This journal was later combined with the Journal of Analytical and Applied Chemistry to form the modern Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Remsen is most known for the actions of one of his post-doctoral researchers, Constantin Fahlberg. Fahlberg was a young chemist who apparently did not wash his hands after working with chemicals all day. During dinner one day, he noticed his dinner roll tasted extra sweet. He asked his wife if she did anything special with the rolls. She replied she hadn’t done anything new and her roll was not sweet at all. He figured the sweetness was caused by something left on his hands from the lab.

Fahlberg had been working on coal tar derivatives and spent the next day tasting his work. Remsen and Fahlberg identified the sweetness was caused by an oxidation of o-toluenesulfonamide. Fahlberg quickly recognized the economic potential of a new sweetener and patented the discovery as ‘saccharine’ and claimed the discovery as his own. As the head researcher, Remsen was entitled to partial credit. This slight caused a rift between the two chemists which lasted a lifetime.

You should still wash your hands before dinner after a hard day in a chemistry lab, even if you miss out on important discoveries as a result.

Notable Science History Events for February 10

2009 – First satellite collision.


Iridium 33 (left) and Strela-2M Cosmos (right) satellites.

The first hypervelocity collision between two artificial satellites occurred when Iridium Communications’ Iridium 33 (560 kg) satellite collided with the Russian military’s (950 kg) Cosmos-2251. The relative velocity between the two satellites was 11.70 km/sec or 26,170 miles per hour. The resulting collision generated over 2000 pieces of debris measuring at least 10 centimeters across and multiple smaller pieces. A quarter of the debris re-entered the atmosphere by 2016,  but several large pieces remain a hazard to other satellites.

2006 – Norman Shumway died.

Shumway was the American doctor who performed the first successful heart transplant in the United States. Many early heart transplant patients did not live for very long after their operations which caused many surgeons to not want to perform heart transplants. Dr. Shumway continued to refine the procedure and worked to decrease rejection and increase patient safety and longevity.

2005 – David Allan Bromley died.

Bromley was a Canadian/American physicist who is considered to be the founder of heavy ion research studying the structure and behavior of atomic nuclei. Heavy ions are ions greater in size than a helium nucleus and used to study larger atomic nuclei.

1923 – Wilhelm Röntgen died.

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1845 – 1923)

Röntgen was a German physicist who received the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901 for his discovery of Röntgen rays. He did not know the origin of the mysterious rays from his equipment so he named them x-rays to specify the unknown.

The most common method of detecting radiation was to use photographic plates. Röntgen used this to produce the first medical x-ray. His wife placed her hand over the plate to block the incoming x-rays.  When he developed the plate, he saw his wife’s finger bones and ring.

1912 – Joseph Lister died.

Joseph Lister

Joseph Lister (1827 – 1912)

Lister was an English surgeon who pioneered the idea of sterile conditions in surgeries. He introduced the practice of sterilizing surgical instruments and wounds with carbolic acid which led to less post-operative infections. His theories were generally not well received by established medical professionals but became quite popular in medical schools and teaching hospitals. By the time the next generation became doctors, Lister was seen as the founder of modern surgery.

1902 – Walter Brattain was born.

Walter Houser Brattain

Walter Houser Brattain (1902 – 1987)
Nobel Foundation

Brattain was an American physicist who shares the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics with John Bardeen and William Shockley for the development of the semiconductor transistor. Transistors are electronic devices used to amplify or switch electronic signals and a basic unit in electronic design. Prior to the semiconductor transistor, transistors were high voltage vacuum tubes. The semiconductor transistor is much smaller, generates less heat and is less expensive.

1897 – John Franklin Enders was born.

John Franklin Enders

John Franklin Enders (1897 – 1985)
Nobel Foundation

Enders was an American microbiologist who shares the 1954 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Thomas Weller and Frederick Robbins for their work with the poliomyelitis virus which causes polio.

They discovered a means to grow the virus in a medium other than the nervous fibers it naturally infects. This allowed more of the virus to be produced at a time in controlled environments. This made it much easier to make an effective vaccine. They used these methods later with the virus that causes measles that led to a vaccine.

1846 – Ira Remsen was born.

1840 – Per Teodor Cleve was born.

Per Teodor Cleve

Per Teodor Cleve (1840 – 1905)

Cleve was a Swedish chemist and mineralogist who discovered the elements holmium and thulium. He discovered the two elements while investigating a sample of erbium oxide. Once he removed all the erbium from the sample, he was left with a brown substance and a green substance. He named the brown substance holmia after his hometown of Stockholm and the green substance thulia after Thule, the Greek name for Scandinavia.

He also discovered the element didymium was not an element at all, but two separate elements: neodymium and praseodymium.

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