7 Facts About Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge

Statue of Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge in Germany.
Statue of Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge in Germany. / Doris Antony, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

If you've ever referred to drinking coffee as getting your caffeine fix, thank Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge. The chemist and subject of today's Google doodle identified the chemical compound after receiving a carton of coffee beans as a gift. In honor of his 225th birth anniversary on February 8, here are a few more facts about Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge.

1. Runge was born in Germany.

Born outside Hamburg, Germany in 1794, Runge was the son of a pastor and the third of seven siblings. Even at a young age, he expressed an interest in science and experimentation.

2. His experiments with belladonna led to a big discovery.

Runge made his first major discovery when working as an apprentice in his uncle's pharmacy as a teenager. After getting some extract from a nightshade plant in his eye, he found that his pupil had dilated. The culprit was atropine: a chemical in nightshade plants that blocks receptors for the neurotransmitter responsible for activating muscles. After recreating the results with belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, in a cat's eye, he wrote a paper on atropine's effects.

3. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe helped Runge identify caffeine.

Runge's work with belladonna was impressive enough to attract the attention of the author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (known for his play Faust, but also his scientific work Metamorphosis of Plants). The chemist met with the German writer and recreated his atropine experiments on a cat's eye. After the demonstration, Goethe gifted him a package of coffee beans, telling him he could use them in future investigations. He used the coffee to identify caffeine a few months later.

4. Runge's classmates called him "Dr. Gift."

Gift means "poison" in German—fitting, considering his enthusiasm for working with nightshade. He earned the nickname while studying chemistry at the University of Jena.

5. He invented a new dye color.

Later in life, Runge became known for his work with synthetic dyes. He invented the first one made from coal tar—a type of synthetic dye called aniline blue. He was also the first chemist to identify the essential components of some dyes, like carbolic acid, more commonly known as phenol today.

6. He used his chemistry skills to improve His domestic life.

After changing the field of chemistry with his discoveries, Runge eventually settled down and channeled his chemistry knowledge into more humble pursuits. The lifelong bachelor used his science background around the house to make wine, preserve foods, and cook meals for dinner parties in his golden years.

7. He died in poverty.

Runge's brilliance didn't make him rich. Fifteen years after losing his job at a chemical company, he died a poor man at age 73.