We know Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer and poet. He was also an amateur botanist, and his interest and connections led to the discovery of the chemical you crave every single morning.

You’ve heard of Romantic painters and poets. Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge was, in his way, a Romantic chemist. He lived in the right time period (1795-1867), he hung out with artists and writers, he did work that still influences the world today (from quinine to paper chromatography), and although he didn’t die young, he did die in poverty. Close enough.

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Also, he was a young hotshot who lived dangerously. By twenty-five he had made a name for himself by working with belladonna. He showed how belladonna relaxes the muscles—his most dramatic demonstration was putting drops of belladonna in a cat’s eyes to dilate the pupil. (It’s painless. Some optomitrists today use drops with belladonna extract.) He demonstrated this, in 1819, to none other than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe is a giant of literature today, but he was famous and revered even in his own lifetime. Goethe was also interested in botany, and he was sufficiently pleased with the young chemist to give him the not inexpensive gift of Arabian mocha coffee beans. Goethe suggested Runge figure out what it was inside these beans that made people feel awake, happy, and focused.

Runge, within a short period of time, had come up with the answer to what made coffee so pleasant—trimethylxanthine. Because it was most easily extracted (via chloroform) from coffee beans it got the common name of caffeine. When you drink it, which you certainly will, give thanks to Goethe and to Runge—with maybe a little gratitude leftover for the cat.

Image:Petr Kratochvil

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