Today's Google doodle celebrates the birthday of Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, the chemist who discovered the chemical caffeine. Since caffeine is one of the reasons that coffee is a superfood, Runge lies at the root of a great scientific tradition of studying the effects of coffee on the human body and brain. To honor him, here are some curious facts about his life:

Fact No. 1 Runge was born on February 9, 1894, during the same week that France abolished slavery, the U.S. Senate held its first public meeting, and Joseph Haydn's iconic 99th Symphony in E premiered. (It sounds much better if you drink an espresso while listening to it.) Before reading the rest of this column, go get a coffee, click the YouTube below, and listen to it while you read. (Just a suggestion.)


Fact No. 2 Runge grew up in Hamburg, Germany, which since 1189 had been a "Free Imperial City" with permission to set its own laws; it pioneered the German legal system starting all the way back in 1280. It was a pleasant city, full of churches and coffeehouses. Coffee was a preferred beverage for the upper classes. 

Fact No. 3 Runge's first major discovery was that the dangerous poison belladonna (a.k.a. deadly nightshade) caused the eyes to dilate. Other effects of belladonna include dry mouth, blurred vision, red dry skin, fever, fast heartbeat, inability to urinate or sweat, hallucinations, spasms, mental problems, convulsions, and coma. All things considered, I'd rather have a cup of coffee.

Fact No. 4 Runge began investigating the effects of caffeine on the human body after being given a packet of coffee by Goethe, author of the 19th-century blockbuster The Sorrows of Young Werther, a titular character of which spends a great deal of time mooning over women whilst drinking coffee.

Fact No. 5 Runge taught chemistry at the University of Breslau, which was nearly destroyed by Napoleon, who was famously obsessed with coffee. According to contemporary observers, Napoleon "drank Coffee at all hours of the day, to revive his spirits and invigorate his body ... but for coffee Napoleon would never have been Emperor of France, or conqueror of Europe." Sounds about right, eh?

Fact No. 6 After leaving his teaching position, Runge worked for a chemical manufacturer for 18 years. However, he had a run-in with a manager who resented his talent and was dismissed without severance (as was common in those days). Back then, BTW, nobody drank coffee at the office; if you wanted a cup, you had to go to a coffeehouse.

Fact No. 7 Runge died in poverty 15 years later. He is memorialized by a statue in the city of Oranienburg that depicts him in front of some chemical equipment, but he seems to be reaching out his right hand to grab a cup of coffee. That's what I think anyway.

That's it, folks!


Published on: Feb 8, 2019
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