Friday’s Google Doodle raises a coffee cup for the 225th birthday of chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, who discovered caffeine.
If you hadn’t heard of Runge until today, you’re not alone. Despite his work, the once-respected chemist spent the last 15 years of his life in obscurity, struggling to make ends meet, after an 1852 conflict with the chemical company he worked for. But in his younger years, Runge moved in some very well-connected social circles, and those connections, combined with curiosity and hard work, led to his first major discovery: caffeine.
“It was a result of an encounter between a scientist and a poet that caffeine was first revealed to the world,” wrote Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer in their 2001 book, The World of Caffeine, “a curiously symbolic origin when one considers the vast panorama of the drug’s history, encompassing, as it does, so much of the disparate worlds of science and culture.”
One day, while experimenting with potentially deadly chemicals without adult supervision, the teenage Runge splashed some belladonna extract into his eyes. That provided a valuable lesson for an aspiring scientist: belladonna extract causes the pupils to dilate (arguably, “wear goggles in the lab” is also a valuable lesson, but there’s no record of whether that one also sunk in). Decades later, other scientists would discover that it works because compounds in belladonna block the nerve receptors that tell the muscle of the iris to contract. Runge wasn’t the first person to realize the effects of belladonna on the eyes; women in Renaissance Italy used belladonna eyedrops as a cosmetic, sometimes with disastrous effects on their vision in the long run. But his observations were interesting enough that, years later, University of Jena professor Johann Wolfgang Doberiner asked Runge to demonstrate the experiment again — this time on a cat.
Runge’s cat demonstration had an audience: his professor’s friend, the famous writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (it’s not hard to find at least one the two had in common). Goethe was also fascinated by science, and to repay Runge for his demonstration, he gave the young student a bag of coffee beans; the beans were a rare, imported delicacy in nineteenth-century Europe, so it was quite a gift. But, like many offers of free coffee, Goethe’s gift came with strings attached: he wanted Runge to analyze the chemistry of the beans that produced the stimulating, tasty beverage. Fortunately for the sleep-deprived, Runge set to work and soon isolated the compound that gave coffee its potency: caffeine.
Later in his career, Runge invented a synthetic blue dye called aniline blue, as well as a process for splitting compounds into their constituent chemicals, called paper chromatography, and a method for extracting sugar from beet juice. He also became one of the first chemists to isolate the compound quinine, which was used for decades to treat and prevent malaria. Sadly, there’s no record of how much coffee Runge consumed to fuel all that time in the lab.