Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/May 1883/Chemistry and Pharmacy

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By Professor IRA REMSEN.

CHEMISTRY owes a debt of gratitude to Pharmacy which she has for years been striving to repay. And when a disciple of the new science is called upon to address those who stand at the threshold of a career which will bind them to the old art, his thoughts naturally turn to the day when the occupations of the chemist and the pharmacist were united in one person—when all that was worth knowing of chemistry was mastered by the pharmacist, and the art of pharmacy was practiced by the chemist. We are far removed from that day now. Both the subjects once so intimately associated have developed to an enormous extent, and he would be a brave person who would attempt to make himself master of the lore of both pharmacy and chemistry. The term "chemist" has come to have a signification quite different from that which it once had, though it is used now, as of old, in two entirely distinct senses. There is, first, the chemist who makes use of facts already established for a variety of useful purposes, some of them of the greatest value to the human race. Such a one practices the art of chemistry. Then there is, in the second place, the chemist who establishes the facts which are to be made use of. He spends his time in delving in out-of-the-way corners, turning over this and that, and endeavoring to get at the principles which underlie what is called chemical action. Such a one is following the science of chemistry. Now you, gentlemen, are primarily chemists in the first sense—you are to practice to a limited extent the art of chemistry.

It has seemed to me that, during the short time to be devoted to my remarks, it might be both interesting and profitable to examine into the questions: What has Chemistry to thank Pharmacy for? and what has Pharmacy to thank Chemistry for?

As regards the former question, it may be answered that, in the first place, the desire to discover new substances for medical purposes originally formed a strong incentive to those engaged in chemical work, and undoubtedly a large number of valuable observations have been made by those who were working primarily to gain possession of substances which might be valuable to pharmacy. We know that the collection and the manufacture of drugs of many forms is one of the most ancient of occupations, and it seems to have been regarded as a very important one, as all who have ever been afflicted with the ills that flesh is heir to (and who has not?) can easily appreciate. The alleviation of human suffering is a high object to strive for, and for this purpose the physician and pharmacist join hand to hand, and they had been working together for long ages before chemistry and chemists were ever heard of. While gaining experience which proved of direct value to them in their professions, they were also, though unconsciously, doing something toward laying the foundations of a science which has since been developed. They were helping to collect the material, the accurate scientific study of which was undertaken at a later date. Finally, there came the time when men began to study some of the substances which they gained possession of, with no other purpose in view than to learn something more with reference to their general properties, and their conduct under different circumstances. When that time came, the science of chemistry was born.

Again, in addition to the collection of much of the material which formed the basis of the first chemical study, indeed, as a consequence of this, we find that during a considerable period—from the middle of the seventeenth century—many of those who achieved the greatest distinction in chemical work were those who began as pharmacists. Among the earliest of these may be mentioned Kunkel, the discoverer of phosphorus; Lemery, author of one of the most valuable of the text-books of chemistry; Geoffroy, whose investigations on chemical affinity were of such great importance to chemistry; Marggraf, the discoverer of alumina and of the composition of gypsum; Scheele, the great discoverer of oxygen and of chlorine; in France, Lefêvre, Glaser, and others; and, finally, more recently, the most influential chemist of modern times, the great German, Liebig. For a long time the only chemical laboratories known were the pharmacies, and of course all chemical work was then done by the pharmacists. If any one desired a knowledge of chemistry, his only way to acquire it was to enter a pharmacy, and this whether he desired to practice the art or not. It was not until between the twentieth and thirtieth year of the present century that there existed any laboratory in which a student could acquire a special knowledge of chemistry.

In another way we see the intimate connection which but a short time ago existed between chemistry and pharmacy. The principal chemical journal of the world, which was started in the year 1832 by Liebig, was called during a period of forty years the "Annals of Chemistry and Pharmacy," and only about ten years ago was its name changed to the "Annals of Chemistry"; and many other publications might be mentioned whose titles give clear indications of the close relationship existing between the two subjects.

The fact is, the interests of chemistry and pharmacy were identical during the period to which I have referred. What helped the one helped the other. But, beginning as a partial offspring of pharmacy, chemistry has attained to a position of great importance in the world, and has become gradually the foundation of more than one occupation. To-day not only pharmacists, but those of many other professions, have to look to chemistry for that knowledge of substances and of kinds of action which is necessary for their success. An extended examination of the subject would show us that pharmacy played a very important part in the founding, particularly of that field of chemistry which is usually designated by the name "organic chemistry"—a field in which many of the brilliant modern victories of chemists have been achieved. Without the fundamental work of pharmacists in extracting from plants their valuable constituents, organic chemistry would to-day be in its infancy, instead of being what it is—a giant of mighty strength, exerting a controlling influence upon a number of important occupations, including pharmacy. But what this subject is to-day is only a promise of what it is to be when the results, which we now see plainly foreshadowed, shall have been accomplished. I think it is clear, then, that Chemistry has much to thank Pharmacy for; but what has Chemistry done toward paying the debt she owes? Much, very much, directly and indirectly. It is impossible to enter into details this evening. I can only refer to a few features which seem to me worthy of special notice.

The accurate scientific study of chemical substances, whether these are of use to pharmacy or not, has led to the introduction of more accurate methods in pharmacy. The extraction and preparation of medicinal compounds were at first very crude and simple operations. These were gradually improved upon, of course, as time passed on, but they were only perfected when the science of chemistry began to exert its influence. The point to be particularly observed here is this, that it is rather the study of chemical action than the particular study of this or that substance as such that tends to improve the method of work. In this way many obscure substances have contributed largely to the improvement of chemistry, and consequently to the improvement of pharmacy. There is a not uncommon feeling that it is a waste of time to work for years endeavoring to unravel the secrets of some apparently insignificant substance. If the substance itself can not be used, and there is no prospect that it ever can be used, then, it is argued, it can not be important. To you, gentlemen, who have been under especially good instruction in these matters, this argument will not appear to be of much weight, but permit me to turn my attention for a moment to the larger audience before us, and to say a word in defense of those who spend their lives in what are commonly looked upon as unprofitable investigations.

Not long ago I heard this story, which may serve as a sort of overture to what I want to say: An excellent gentleman, on being informed that a certain scientific man was engaged in work upon frogs, replied, "Why spend his time in such trivial work, when there is the human soul to investigate?" The feeling which actuated the speaker is one which I repeat is not uncommon, and I may add it is quite natural, but it is certainly wrong in principle. If we analyze the underlying thought of those who cavil at ordinary scientific investigation, we shall find that there are two distinct ideas contained in it: First, that, in order that any investigation shall be of value or of importance, it must bear direct fruit. The substance discovered must be useful for some "practical" purpose, either as a medicine or as a dyestuff, an explosive or a poison—no matter what, so that it can be used for something. A second idea is that, in order to solve the problems of nature, only those of the most evident importance should be attacked. Such questions as What is life? What is electricity? What is the attraction of gravitation? What is force? What is matter?—these are the ones which, in the opinion of many, should occupy investigators, to the exclusion of the less important.

As regards the latter idea, it may be said that there are a great many very strongly fortified citadels in nature. Scientific investigators have attacked these from time to time and have been repulsed. A good commander, having discovered that a stronghold is invulnerable from a given point, does not continue to attempt its capture from that side, but looks around him for other means of approach; he strengthens his forces, he collects more ammunition, and endeavors to keep his army in general in good condition, studying the surrounding country, and awaiting new revelations. There is, further, a great deal of insignificant camp-work to be done, and, if this is neglected, ultimate success can not be hoped for.

So, too, the scientific investigator finding that a certain problem of paramount importance can not be solved, turns his attention to others, the solution of which may in the end contribute to clearing up greater mysteries. There are hosts of minor questions to be answered, and these must be answered before the fundamental questions of nature can be. Through the insignificant lie the roads of advancement. A fallen leaf, a bit of stone, a tiny flower, a microscopic animal, may contain within themselves the answers to the most important questions. It is not the leaf, or the stone, or the animal that is specially investigated, but the principles involved in their existence. Explain these, if possible, and the explanations will serve for a thousand other things. Then, too, though the explanations sought for may not be found, the correct study of any fact or phenomenon of nature is of assistance to science as a whole. It strengthens her forces, it supplies her with ammunition. An enormous amount of camp-work must be done, or results of value can not be attained. Let the work upon the insignificant problems cease, and the world would sink into darkness. To fully understand the laws of the universe as a whole, we must first learn all we can in regard to the smallest subdivisions of the universe—the atoms.

As regards the idea that an investigation must bear direct fruit to be valuable, I would say that the reply to this is contained partly in what I have already said, but it can be refuted much more clearly and appropriately for our present purpose by the consideration of an example or two. As I remarked a few minutes since, when a new substance is discovered by a chemist, the first question asked by most persons is, What is it good for? what can it be used for? As I desire to show that pharmacy is much indebted to chemistry in recent times, it would seem that I ought first to show that many new substances have been discovered by chemists which are of use in pharmacy. This is, however, so obvious that I prefer to show how some of the most abstruse chemical investigations may ultimately yield fruit of much value to pharmacy. In an address which I had the honor to deliver a few years ago in this building, before the "Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland," I referred to the purely scientific investigations which led to the discovery of choral, and to a method for the manufacture of salicylic acid on the large scale. It can easily be shown that these discoveries were made, not because the discoverers were attempting to find substances gifted with the properties which these two are known to possess, but that they were made as the result of abstruse chemical investigation, undertaken simply with the object of adding to the possessions of science. I shall not repeat what I then said, for there are enough new examples, as well as old, to furnish us with interesting material.

Of comparatively recent discoveries, which may be classed among those which are of direct importance to pharmacy, is that of the artificial preparation of the oil of mustard. This substance is now made by a patented process entirely independently of the mustard-plant. I do not know that the artificial method can at present compete with the natural, but it will probably do so before long, if it does not now. Little did the discoverer dream of the result when he undertook his investigation. When glycerin and oxalic acid are mixed, and the mixture distilled, the chief product under ordinary circumstances is formic acid, a substance found in nature in the bodies of certain ants. Formic acid had been made by the method mentioned for a number of years before it was noticed that something else is formed at the same time. This observation was made about the year 1870, by Tollens, in a chemical factory. On looking into the matter more closely, it was found that the second substance is allyl alcohol, already well known. Now this allyl alcohol is closely related to the oil of mustard, but, up to the year 1870, no method was known by which it could be prepared easily and in large quantity. Now it can be made, thanks to the investigation of Tollens, in any desired quantity. Its transformation into the oil of mustard is a comparatively simple matter, and thus starting from the two common substances, glycerin and oxalic acid, it is now practical to pass to the valuable oil of mustard. You will observe that, in this case, the object of the discoverer of the method was not to get the oil of mustard, but simply to learn what else could be formed besides formic acid under the conditions above mentioned. The question which he proposed to answer was not a very elevated one, nor one the answering of which was at all likely to lead to results of practical value; but, nevertheless, a valuable result did follow.

At the present time there are several chemists engaged on investigations which promise eventually to be of the highest value to pharmacy. Let me attempt to give you some idea of these. For a long time it has been known that from many plants there can be extracted certain constituents which seem to concentrate the medicinal properties of the plants themselves. They form what are sometimes called the active principles of the plants. They are also, and more commonly, known as the alkaloids. Thus, from the white poppy cultivated in Asia Minor, Egypt, Hindostan, and elsewhere, is extracted opium, which in turn contains a number of alkaloids, as morphine, codeine, narcotine, etc.; from Peruvian bark are obtained the valuable alkaloids quinine, cinchonine, etc.; from the St. Ignatius bean comes strychnine; from tobacco, nicotine; from coffee, caffeine, etc. The great value of many of these alkaloids, especially of morphine and quinine for medicinal purposes, has, as we all know, long been recognized. They have, however, been but little understood by chemists, and this has been a just reproach to chemistry. They have been studied carefully, better and better methods have been devised for their extraction and purification, but scarcely anything has been done until within a year or two past to clear up their inner nature. Their relations to simple substances were not known, and it seemed quite impossible to conceive of any method by which our knowledge concerning them could be materially enlarged. Recently, however, a change has come over the scene, and now, in consequence of a very simple scientific observation, a large number of chemists have turned their attention to this field, and it looks as though the time is not far distant when the chemist will be able to produce artificially in the laboratory the alkaloids for which we have hitherto been entirely dependent upon nature. How did this come about? By carrying on investigations on insignificant substances, simply for scientific purposes, to learn more regarding these substances for the sake of increasing our knowledge.

In the year 1851 Anderson, a Scotch chemist, undertook the examination of the oil which is formed when bones are heated. We all know the extremely disagreeable properties of this oil. Its odor would be enough to prevent any but a bold man from undertaking its examination. It is a very complex substance also, and, at first, it seems almost impossible to get from it pure and definite substances. Anderson, recognizing the difficulties before him, went at the problem in a large way. He distilled about two hundred and fifty gallons, or more than a ton, of the disgusting bone-oil, and repeated this operation over and over again. He was finally rewarded by the discovery of some curious substances which he called pyridine, picoline, and lutidine. These substances have from time to time been met with since, but they have played a very subordinate part in chemistry until very recently. About two years ago a young chemist (and, as chance would have it, again a Scotchman) tried an experiment which gave him the startling result that from quinine there can easily be obtained a substance closely related to the pyridine of Anderson; and, indeed, by a further step pyridine itself was obtained. This gave the first hint as to the chemical nature of quinine, and chemists at once recognized the importance of the discovery. Immediately great activity showed itself in the further examination of bone-oil or animal-tar, and our knowledge of this substance was rapidly increased. At the same time it has been shown that not only quinine, but many other alkaloids, are related to pyridine and the other substances discovered by Anderson thirty years ago. Every month we receive reports of rapid advances, and it looks, indeed, as though we should not have long to wait before we hear it announced that quinine and morphine, and perhaps a host of other valuable alkaloids, have been made from the offensive oil which is given off when bones are heated. In view of many past achievements I do not think that this is too much to expect. Look at the unpromising coal-tar, at one time the bugbear of gas-manufacturers! It has become the source of many of the most valuable and interesting chemical substances. Nothing could less suggest the beautiful dye-stuffs, the delicious essences, which can be and are obtained from it in quantity. Surely, with the knowledge already in our possession we have a right to look forward to as brilliant a future for animal-tar as has been the past and is the present of coal-tar. Both substances, offensive as they are, are necessarily prepared in large quantities. The coal-tar is a result of the manufacture of gas; the animal-tar is produced in the manufacture of bone-black or animal-charcoal, which is used to such an enormous extent for the purification of sugar. Had it not been for the untiring and unselfish labors of scores of scientific investigators, who worked for no other object than to increase knowledge for the sake of knowledge, we would to-day be in ignorance of the beautiful and valuable possibilities of these two unattractive substances.

I might multiply examples indefinitely, but the time at my disposal is limited. I have endeavored to show, gentlemen, that while Pharmacy did a great deal to build up the science of Chemistry, Chemistry in her turn, when she reached maturity, began to pay back the debt she owed and pay it back with interest. It is to the science of Chemistry that Pharmacy must look for future advancement, and even the most obscure and most unintelligible of the many chemical investigations which are being carried on at present may eventually prove to be important steps in some line of reasoning which will have the enriching of pharmacy as its result. Nothing in science is too insignificant for notice. We can not tell what the simplest observation may lead to, and it behooves every one whose daily occupation brings him in contact with chemical substances to be ever on the alert and, in true scientific spirit, to follow up, independently of any direct practical result, the slightest observations. Many of you, gentlemen, will have the opportunity to add materially to human knowledge. You will have laboratories at your disposal, and you have been well instructed in chemistry. If you have the desire, you may do much to help your profession. Your chances of success will be better, if you keep yourselves interested in the scientific as well as in the purely practical side of your calling. There is enough work to be done. In certain directions chemistry has only just begun to advance, and there are vast regions still entirely unexplored. Many an arctic sea of chemistry, with its fascinating north pole, awaits the first expedition. An eminent mathematician once said that a new problem in mathematics might easily be furnished for every man, woman, and child in this vast country, and there would then be plenty left for foreigners. A similar remark might be made concerning chemistry. As I have, then, attempted to show that you must look to science for the advance of your calling, I desire above all to leave upon your minds the impression that each of you, if you will, can do something for the common cause. If, in after-years, it shall be my privilege to hear that one among you has really been led to enrich the domains of science, I shall look back upon my part in this evening's proceedings with feelings of great satisfaction.

  1. An address delivered in the Academy of Music, Baltimore, before the graduating class of the Maryland College of Pharmacy.