Friedrich Serturner (1783-1841) successfully isolated the morphine crystals contained in dried poppy resin, thus creating a powerful new painkilling substance that could be prescribed by physicians in predictable potencies.
In 1803, young Friedrich Serturner was a 20-year-old pharmacy apprentice with limited education. Yet, through diligent research, he successfully isolated and extracted morphine crystals from a tarry opium substance called poppy seed juice. In doing so, he became the first chemist ever to isolate and identify the active ingredient associated with a medicinal herb or plant. Furthermore, Serturner's discovery enabled physicians to prescribe morphine in regulated dosages. It was a powerful new method for easing pain and eliminated the dangers of overdose associated with raw poppy juice, which varied unpredictably in its concentration of morphine from one batch to another.
Serturner was born Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Ferdinand Serturner in Neuhaus, Prussia, in 1783. His Austrian parents, Joseph Simon Serdinner and Marie Therese Brockmann, were in the service of the Paderborn prince, Friedrich Wilhelm. Serdinner, an engineer and building inspector in Wilhelm's municipality died in 1798. The prince, who was Serturner's godfather, died in the same year. These deaths left Serturner, at age 15, without a means of support. He was apprenticed to a court apothecary named Cramer.
While serving as an apprentice to Cramer, Serturner decided to investigate the nature of opium to isolate the specific painkilling substance in the drug. During his work in the pharmacy he became aware of the dangers associated with physicians prescribing raw opium as a painkiller. The opium, derived from the seed capsules of white poppies and distributed in the form of dried poppy juice, varied drastically in potency from one juice batch to another. Thus it was nearly impossible for doctors to prescribe the drug effectively. The dangers sometimes overshadowed the benefits, because the opium sometimes was lethal.
After lengthy experimentation, in 1803 Serturner successfully isolated a white, crystalline, alkaloid substance, which he described as the "sleep-inducing factor" of opium. Serturner named it morphine after Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep. He continued to perform his experiments discreetly, late at night and at other times when he was alone. In time he introduced cellar mice and stray dogs into the experiments to observe the effects of the morphine on live animals.
To determine an appropriate dosage for humans, Serturner enlisted friends to ingest the morphine in a series of controlled experiments. Serturner also participated in the experiments while observing and recording the effects of the drug at increased dosages. The experiments revealed that one-half grain of the morphine induced a happy, lightheaded sensation. A second dose caused drowsiness and excessive fatigue. The subjects fell into confusion followed by a deep slumber after ingesting a third dose, and they suffered nausea and headaches upon awakening. Although his friends refused to continue the experiments, Serturner took the morphine compound for months by himself, unaware that it was extremely addictive.
Serturner continued to pursue his pharmacy career, passing the test for apothecary assistant. In 1806, he moved to the Prussian town of Einbeck, where he worked as assistant to the local apothecary, a man named Hink. That year, he published two articles on his morphine experiments, but they were largely ignored. By 1809 he had become a licensed pharmacist and the proprietor of his own business in Westphalia. He published a report on his experiments with morphine for the third time, describing his findings in much greater depth.
The report, entitled Ueber das Morphium als Hauptbestandteil des Opiums,, received greater attention than his earlier writing. It was recognized by the German Mineralogical Society during its meeting at Jena in March of 1817. At the urging of the noted philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the society named Serturner as an honorary member of the group. The faculty of the university at Jena gave him an honorary doctor's degree, and he eventually received similar honors from universities at Marburg, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Batavia, Paris, and Lisbon.
In 1831, Serturner received the Montyon prize as a "Benefactor of Humanity" for his work in isolating morphine from opium. The prize, based on a nomination from the distinguished Institute of France, included a purse of 2,000 francs and brought Serturner the notoriety that he craved in recognition of his tireless research.
With the return of the Hanoverian government to Westphalia, Serturner's license to operate his apothecary, issued under the previous French authority, was revoked. In 1820 Serturner moved to Hameln to operate the town pharmacy.
Certain factions of the German medical community refused to acknowledge the significance of Serturner's discovery. Critics maligned his reputation and belittled his research as amateurish. Medical historians later attributed much greater importance to Serturner's work, especially considering the handicaps he faced. The field of organic chemistry was barely developed during his lifetime. He accomplished his research with a sketchy medical background and with only the limited resources available to him as a pharmacist. It is a testament to his ingenuity and to his passion that he succeeded in creating the chemical reaction exactly as he had set out to do.
Serturner's scientific hypotheses extended beyond his curiosity about the sleep-inducing properties of opium. Because of his commitment to scientific investigation, he branched out into other research. His wife, Lenore von Rettberg, whom he married in 1821, dutifully handled the day-to-day business of his pharmacy, thus affording Serturner greater freedom to conduct his experiments.
Serturner theorized about other chemical reactions, including the potential formation of ether from alcohol and sulfuric acid. He also speculated about atmospheric heat and cold heat. His excessive speculation at times overshadowed his work and put him at a disadvantage among his contemporaries in the scientific community. Scientific journals were loathe to publish his writing, although many of his theories and conclusions later proved true. For example, he noted the behavior of cholera during an epidemic and accurately attributed its cause to a living organism.
Serturner also accurately assessed the nature of alkaloid compounds, which he called "vegetable alkali," thus disproving the notion that all medicinal plant substances were acidic. In his morphine research he demonstrated how easily substances could be isolated through crystallization, since crystalline substances cannot form new compounds with crystalline substances of different types.
Despite the significance of his research, Serturner suffered from chronic depression and became severely withdrawn. In his later years he judged himself a failure in his quest to develop a safe and efficient analgesic formula, a way to kill pain without rendering the patient unconscious. In his frustration over the indifferent response of the scientific community to much of his work, Serturner turned his research to improving the designs of firearms, bullets, and other ammunition. He developed an improved design for rear-loaded rifles and created a lead-antimony alloy for making bullets, which proved effective in increasing range. However, his attempts to invent an improved type of gunpowder met with little success. Ironically, the Hanoverian government, which had expelled him from his Westphalia pharmacy, later honored him as a patriot for his research on firearms and ammunition.
Serturner's later years were wracked with bitterness and pain. He became a recluse and a hypochondriac who bemoaned what he perceived to be a senseless world. He turned increasingly to morphine to dull his pain, until the side effects became intolerable. Over time his addiction increased his discomfort. He died in Hameln on February 20, 1841, unaware that the full potential of his discovery was imminent with the invention of intravenous medication a few years later.
The significance of much of Serturner's research remains subject to dispute among historians. Some approach his accomplishments with hesitation, citing his tendency to speculate excessively. Others commend Serturner's work but blame his frustrations on his inability to articulate his findings with sufficient clarity to satisfy 19th century European medical professionals. Among his works are a two-volume dissertation, System der chemischen Physik, dated 1820-22, and Annalen fur das Universalsystem der Elemente, comprised of three volumes and dated 1826-29.
Despite his limited education, Serturner's work proved far-reaching. Beyond the isolation of the morphine crystals, he effectively demonstrated that medicinal plants contain specific substances that can be extracted efficiently, permitting precision control of a prescribed dosage of drug.
Daintith, John; Sarah Mitchell, and Elizabeth Tootill, A Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists,, Facts on File, 1981.
Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975.
Montgomery, Elizabeth Rider, The Story Behind Great Medical Discoveries, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1945.