Today in Science History – February 20 – Sertürner and Morphine


Friedrich Sertürner

Friedrich Sertürner (1783 – 1841)

February 20 marks the passing of Friedrich Sertürner. Sertürner was a German pharmacist who was the first to isolate the active ingredient from opium poppies. The small crystals he extracted would be later called morphine after Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep because of the way it caused drowsiness.

Sertürner tested his discovery on mice and dogs and ultimately humans but never discovered its addictive properties. He used trial and error to determine the correct dose. Using a sample group of himself and three students, a one-fourth grain (30 mg) dose caused a light-headed, happy sensation. A second dose made them drowsy and fatigued and a third made them confused and somnolent. He set the recommended dose at one-eighth grain (15 mg).

Morphine was marketed as an analgesic and treatment for alcohol and opium addiction. It would later be found to be a very addictive substance and overuse of the drug became a serious problem.

Sertürner’s discovery also heralded the beginning of alkaloid chemistry. Morphine was the first alkaloid extracted from a plant source. Other chemists began looking closer at various other plants and began to find alkaloids like codeine, strychnine, veratrine, and quinine.

Sertürner became addicted to his own discovery and suffered from chronic depression. In spite of this, he studied cholera, corrosive alkali substances, and firearms. He improved the design of breech-loading rifles and invented a lead-antimony alloy bullet. He had a wide variety of interests would manage to keep up on a working pharmacy until his death.

Notable Science History Events for February 20

1986 – Space station Mir launched.

Mir Space Station

Mir Space Station in 1985.

The Soviet Union launched the first piece of the first long-term space station. The core module would provide living quarters for the crew. Mir was continuously crewed by Soviet and later, Russian cosmonauts for 15 years. The station was opened to other international astronauts and hosted the first space tourist.

1982 – René Jules Dubos died.

Dubos was a French-American microbiologist who’s antibacterial research produced many antibiotics. He also studied the social and environmental factors that affect people and was one of the earliest environmentalists. He was known for being the originator the maxim “Think Globally, Act Locally”.

1972 – Maria Goeppert-Mayer died.

Mayer was a German-American physicist who shares half the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics with Johannes Jensen for their theories of nuclear structure. They independently proposed the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus where the protons and neutrons are ordered in concentric layers or “shells”.

1965 – Ranger 8 space probe crash lands on the Moon.

Ranger 8

Ranger 8 spacecraft

NASA’s Ranger 8 spacecraft crashed into the surface of the Moon. It was designed to enter into low Moon orbit to take and transmit photographs of the surface of the Moon to learn more about the surface conditions in preparation for an eventual landing. Ranger 8 took over 7000 photographs before the collision in Mare Tranquilitatis.

1962 – John Glenn becomes first American to orbit the Earth.

Friendship 7

John Glenn boarding Friendship 7 to become the first American to orbit the Earth.

NASA astronaut John Glenn became the first US astronaut to orbit the earth. He was launched as part of the Project Mercury Friendship 7 program from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

He orbited the Earth three times in just under 5 hours.

1937 – Robert Huber was born.

Huber is a German biochemist who shares the 1988 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Johann Deisenhofer and Hartmut Michel for the determination of the structure of the proteins essential for photosynthesis. They isolated the protein that was important to photosynthesis in purple bacteria and used x-ray crystallography to determine its structure. This led to the discovery of similar proteins necessary for photosynthesis in other cyanobacteria.

1907 – Henri Moissan died.

Henri Moissan

Henri Moissan (1852-1907) French chemist Credit: Nobel Foundation

Moissan was a French chemist who was awarded the 1906 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for isolating the element fluorine. He used electrolysis on a solution of potassium hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen fluoride. When the current was applied, the hydrogen was collected on the negative electrode and the fluorine gas was produced at the positive electrode.

He died suddenly from appendicitis shortly after returning home from accepting his prize.

Read more about Henri Moissan at September 28 in Science History.

1901 – René Jules Dubos was born.

1892 – Hermann Franz Moritz Kopp died.

Herman Kopp

Hermann Kopp (1870-1892) German chemist and historian.
Credit: T. E. Thorpe, 1864.

Kopp was a German chemist and science historian. He spent his chemical career comparing physical properties of compounds to the physical properties of the atoms that made them up. He discovered the physical properties of many organic compounds, such as boiling point, specific heat, specific gravity and thermal expansion will differ from other organic compounds according to the degree which their structure differs. One example was the relationship between boiling points of hydrocarbons by the number of -CH2 groups in the molecule. Kopp’s work with heat capacities showed the molecular heat capacity of a solid compound is equal to the sum of the heat capacities of the elements composing the molecule. This relationship is known today as Kopp’s Law.

Kopp is best known for his prolific writings on the history of chemistry. His History of Chemistry was a four-volume tome to which he added three more supplements. He also chronicled the more recent (mid-to-late 1800s) story of chemistry in The Development of Chemistry in Recent Times. His history of alchemy was covered in Alchemy in Ancient and Modern Times. In addition to all this writing, he edited and wrote for three different chemistry journals. He spent the last part of his life gathering materials to write a second edition of History of Chemistry but never finished the work.

1844 – Ludwig Eduard Boltzmann was born.

Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906)

Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906)

Boltzmann was an Austrian physicist best known for his work in statistical mechanics and thermodynamics and his kinetic theory of particles in a gas. His statistical methods helped bridge the gap between the thermodynamics of a large system and the microscopic molecular level. He is also known for the law relating the energy given off by a black body object as a function of its temperature.

1841 – Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Sertürner died.

1762 – Tobias Mayer died.

Tobias Mayer

Tobias Mayer (1723 – 1762)

Mayer was a German astronomer who discovered the libration or ‘wobble’ of the moon. He was also known for his accurate tide tables which aided navigators to determine their current longitude to within half a degree.

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