The Beginnings | Isolation of Active Ingredients | Synthesis
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Opium poppy. The white liquid oozing from the seed pod is the source of morphine. © Royal Botanical Gardens
Medicine bottles for morphine compounds. © Ontario Heritage Foundation
Containers for cinchona and quinine preparations. © Ontario Heritage Foundation
Cinchona bark, the source of quinine. © Ontario Heritage Foundation
In 1804, Frederick Sertürner, a 22-year-old German pharmacist, isolated the chemical compound morphine from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). He then tested its effects by taking it himself and giving it to three volunteers. Since they took about 10 times more than today's usual dose, it took all participants some time to recover from the stupefying effects!
Sertürner first named the newly-isolated substance "somniferous principle" after its potent sleep-inducing qualities. The name was later changed to morphine in honour of Morpheus, the ancient Greek god of dreams.
The technique that Sertürner developed allowed others to isolate alkaloids from medicinal plants. In fact, this became an exciting area of research, with important new discoveries being made almost every year. Ten new drugs were isolated in the ten years after Sertürner's discovery of morphine, and a total of 30 had been discovered by 1854.
The "stars" of this process were two French pharmacists, Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph-Bienaimé Caventou. Most of their work was done as a team over a period of 25 years that ended only with Pelletier's death in 1842.
Just before their collaboration began, Pelletier, with another colleague, had isolated emetine from ipecac (Cephaelis ipecacuanha), noted for its emetic (vomit-producing) qualities. Then, together, in 1818-19, Pelletier and Caventou isolated strychnine, brucine, veratrine, and colchicine.
In 1820, they made one of their most important discoveries: quinine, isolated from the bark of the cinchona tree (Cinchona officinalis). Quinine became a widely-used specific against malaria, which at the time was endemic in certain areas around the world, including parts of Canada. To their credit, Pelletier and Caventou, although they started their own quinine manufacturing plant, also made their production process public.
Pelletier and Caventou then went on - sometimes alone or with additional partners - to isolate piperine from black pepper, caffeine from coffee, and several more alkaloids from the opium poppy.
Meanwhile, other pharmacists and chemists, mostly French or German, isolated a number of other alkaloids from medicinal plants that had significant value as drugs. These included atropine, aconitine, codeine, papaverine, cocaine, and scopolamine.
This wave of discoveries essentially revolutionized the way people used the healing power of plants. Increasingly, isolated ingredients replaced the whole plant in mainstream medicine. These new drugs were stronger, and the dose of active ingredients given to a patient could be more accurately measured and controlled.
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