The Role of Chemistry in History

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Discovery and Synthesis of Morphine

April 30th, 2008 · 3 Comments ·

Morphine: An Introduction | Discovery and Synthesis of Morphine | Addiction and Opiate Receptors | Morphine Affects History: Modern Pharmacology | History Affects Morphine: The Hypodermic Needle | History Affects Morphine II: Cultural Antipathy and Anti-Narcotics Law| References

– Friedrich Sertürner experimenting in his lab

  • The isolation of morphine in its pure form was the result of years of research and testing, occurring most prominently between the years 1803 and 1817. During this time, three men – Derosne, Seguin, and Sertürner – all had some form of success, but it is the latter that is today best remembered.

  • Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Sertürner, a German pharmacist born in Neuhaus in what is today Germany, effectively isolated pure morphine from opium in the year 1817.

  • To do this, Sertürner extracted opium with hot water, precipitating the morphine with ammonia (Huxtable and Schwarz 2001). This process yielded water-insoluble colorless crystals.

  • To prove that this isolate had the same effects as the opium from which it came, Sertürner ran experimental tests on both he himself and three young boys, a method indicative of the times. And while Sertürner’s experiment indeed proved the shared properties of his crystals and opium, it was nearly disastrous, bringing forth “severe narcosis,” “pain,” and “exhaustion” in all four test subjects.

  • Because Sertürner likewise experienced a dream-like state while under the influence, he named the compound “Morphium,” after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams (as named by Ovid, a Roman). Interestingly, the name we know today – morphine – came not from Sertürner but from Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, who changed the name in his German-to-French translation, much to Sertürner’s chagrin.

  • It is important to note that although Sertürner isolated morphine, it took until 1925 for someone – one Sir Robert Robinson – to deduce the empirical formula, and it took until 1952 for one Marshall D. Gates, Jr. to synthesize morphine in a laboratory.

Tags: Morphine