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Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge was the first scientist to isolate caffeine

Friday’s Google Doodle honors the German chemist on his 225th birthday.

Friday’s Google Doodle honors Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge on his 225th birthday.
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

If you are among the two-thirds of Americans who count on a cup of coffee each morning for an awakening jolt, you can raise a cup to Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, the German chemist celebrated in Friday’s Google Doodle on his 225th birthday.

After being handed a bag of coffee beans from none other than the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Runge isolated the eye-widening, heart-pumping drug we know as caffeine.

As if discovering the fuel of the modern workforce wasn’t enough, Runge was among the first scientists to isolate quinine, one of the earliest treatments for malaria. He also developed a technique to dye clothes, discovered the dye known as aniline blue, invented a system to extract sugar from beet juice, and was the father of a critical tool in analytical chemistry, paper chromatography.

Runge was born in the Billwerder quarter of Hamburg, Germany, on February 8, 1794, as the third child of a pastor. His family initially could only afford to send him to elementary school, but he began working as an apprentice at his uncle’s pharmacy at the age of 16, where he started to experiment with chemistry. One of his earliest findings was that the extract of the belladonna plant, also known as deadly nightshade, could dilate pupils. He discovered this when he accidentally splashed some in his eye, and in true scientist form, he took notes.

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge was the first scientist to isolate caffeine from coffee.
Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge was the first scientist to isolate caffeine from coffee.
Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

A decade later, he demonstrated this effect for Goethe, although this time, he used a cat. Runge explained that he used the extract to treat partial blindness in a soldier. In his book, he recounted that this demonstration so impressed the legendary philosopher and diplomat that “he handed me a carton of coffee beans, which a Greek had sent him as a delicacy. ‘You can also use these in your investigations,’ said Goethe. He was right; for soon thereafter I discovered therein caffeine, which became so famous on account of its high nitrogen content.”

Runge went on to receive a doctorate from the University of Berlin and taught at the University of Breslau before leaving to work for a chemical company. Throughout his life, he also turned his chemistry knowledge toward practical matters like removing stains, making wine, and cooking.

Despite his contributions, many of his accomplishments went unrecognized and were often attributed to other scientists. He eventually had a falling-out with his employer and lost his job. Runge died in poverty on March 25, 1867, at the age of 73.