Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge: A Revolutionary Chemist Who Identified Caffeine

If you love coffee, be sure to thank Friedlieb Runge for that instant energy boost!

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge was a German chemist born on February 8, 1794. He was the son of a Lutheran pastor and the third of seven children. He expressed his interest in science and experimentation at a young age. 

Runge was the first person to identify caffeine and discover a new method for dying clothes. However, most of his contributions to chemistry are often overlooked. Here are a few major things you should know about Runge’s chemical experiments.

He Accidently Discovered How To Dilate The Pupils

At the age of 16, Friedlieb Runge began working as a trainee at his uncle’s pharmacy. This is where he started to fall in love with chemistry.

One day he accidentally splashed a drop of belladonna (a perennial herbaceous plant) extract in his eye, and found that his pupil dilated. Like other scientists, he took notes and recreated the results by dropping the extract into a cat’s eyeballs.

Runge explained the toxic effects of atropine, a chemical found in belladonna. It blocks the contraction of the circular pupillary sphincter muscle, thus allowing the radial iris dilator muscle to contract and dilate the pupil.

He Used Coffee To Identify Caffeine

In 1819, Runge’s experiments with belladonna attracted the attention of a German writer and statesman, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The chemist demonstrated the same effects of atropine on cat’s pupils.

Impressed by his demonstration, Johann gifted him a packet of coffee beans, suggesting that he could use them in future investigations. Runge analyzed the beans, and a few months later, he identified caffeine.

Google honored Runge on his 225th birthday with a coffee-drinking Doodle 

People had already been drinking coffee for centuries, but Friedlieb Runge was the first man to identify its chemical components. He as able to isolate caffeine, a key ingredient that made the beverage energizing.

Runge Discovered A Drug Used To Treat Malaria

In the same year, Runge found another chemical compound for which he is rarely credited. He was one of the first scientists to isolate quinine from cinchona bark.

Quinine is used to treat malaria and babesiosis (a malaria-like parasitic disease). It played a major role in decreasing the death rate of workers building the Panama Canal in the early 20th century.

Quinine is also the ingredient in tonic water, which is consumed all over the world as a popular mixer with spirits, such as vodka and gin.

Earned Doctorate After Completing His Medical Studies

In 1822, Runge earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Berlin. Soon thereafter he got a job of a chemistry professor at the University of Breslau.

He Created A New Dye Color – Aniline Blue

Runge’s success continued unabated as he proceeded to make the world a more colorful place by revolutionizing the way people dyed their clothes.

In 1831, Runge left the teaching job and went to work for a chemical company (as a technical director) in Oranienburg, where he invented the first coal tar dye (aniline blue) and various coal tar products.

In his experiments, Runge was able to extract a wide range of chemicals, including pyrrole and phenol. These compounds provided the basis for several industries that create products like paints, drugs, dyes, and cosmetics.

Reference: American Chemical Society | The Poets of Chemistry

He Invented Paper Chromatography

While experimenting with such chemicals, Runge noticed a specific pattern in dyes: they separated into different components as they moved through paper. Using this observation, he developed another new technique called paper chromatography.

It is an inexpensive method of examining chemical mixtures and separating dissolved chemical compounds by their different migration rates across the sheets of paper.

He Was First To Notice Liesegang Rings

Silver-chromate precipitate pattern in a layer of gelatine | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1855, Runge became the first scientist to observe the phenomenon of Liesegang rings. He observed them in a series of experiments on the reagents’ precipitation in blotting paper.

These rings are a phenomenon recorded in various chemical systems undergoing a precipitation reaction in the absence of convection and under specific conditions of concentration. Liesegang rings are formed when the reaction of two solution substances generate weak soluble salts.

Runge Applied His Chemical Knowledge To Improve Routine Life

He was a lifelong bachelor who directed his chemistry skills towards everyday activities, such as preserving foods, canning vegetables and meats, cooking meals, removing strains, and making wines from fruits.

He Died In Relative Obscurity And Poverty

Unfortunately, Runge’s career came to a screeching halt in 1856. After working in the chemical factory for more than two decades, he was fired by the widow of the factory owner.

Read: 12 Ingenious Nikola Tesla Inventions In Various Fields

Despite his phenomenal discoveries, Runge spent the last 11 years of his life struggling financially. He didn’t come up with more breakthroughs and died at the age of 73 in 1867.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is a professional science and technology journalist and a big fan of AI, machines, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out about his latest projects, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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