Posted by: Didapper PJ7 MAR 2012
I do not know what it is about pharmacists and peppers.
I have written in the past about Wilbur Scoville, the US pharmacist who devised a test for measuring the spice heat of chilli peppers (PJ, 14 January 2012, p52), and about Charles Alderton, the US pharmacist who invented the soft drink Dr Pepper (PJ, 13 September, 2008, p310).
Another innovative pharmacist who had a connection with peppers was a 19th century Frenchman, Eugène Soubeiran (1797–1859), who was employed as chief pharmacist at the world-renowned Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris — perhaps best known nowadays as the place where Diana, Princess of Wales, died in 1997.
Eugène Soubeiran’s claim to pepper-related fame is that he was the first to isolate cubebin, a dibenzylbutyrolactone lignan that has been used medicinally for its anti-inflammatory properties and as a urinary antiseptic. Soubeiran extracted it from Piper cubeba (tailed pepper, Java pepper or cubeb), although it is now usually obtained from other plants.
But Soubeiran’s most important discovery was chloroform (trichloromethane). He was one of three researchers who produced the compound independently at about the same time, the others being Samuel Guthrie in the US and Justus von Liebig in Germany.
It is not clear which of them made chloroform first, but Soubeiran was certainly the first to publish his findings when, in 1831, he reported that he had prepared the chemical from acetone and ethanol through the action of calcium hypochlorite.
The compound’s structure was later determined by another French chemist, Jean-Baptiste-André Dumas, who suggested the name chloroform in 1834.
In 1847, after chloroform’s anaesthetic effect on animals had been noted, the Scottish surgeon James Young Simpson and two physician friends experimented with it. All three passed out. As a result, Simpson began using chloroform for anaesthesia in his own practice, and it went on to revolutionise surgery as the first effective general anaesthetic.