Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge German chemist

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge was a German analytical chemist known for his various contributions in the field of chemistry, especially his identification of caffeine. He also identified the mydriatic or pupil dilating effects of belladonna or deadly nightshade extract. He also discovered the first coal tar dye (aniline blue). He was born on February 8, 1974, and died on March 25, 1867. Some people, especially chemists, commemorate and honor him during his death anniversary each year, even if there is no official celebration. Last year in 2020, however, Google made a doodle for him. His upcoming death anniversary will be on Wednesday, March 25, 2020.

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge Profile Summary Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge

BirthdayFebruary 8, 1794
BirthplaceHamburg, Germany
Death dateMarch 25, 1867
Age at death73 years old
Place of deathOranienburg, Prussia
Alma materThe University of Jena, University of Berlin
Career institutionThe University of Berlin, University of Breslau
Doctoral AdvisorJohann Wolfgang Dobereiner

Early Life

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge was born on February 8, 1794 near Hamburg, Germany. At a young age, Runge already conducted chemical experiments, which eventually led him to identify the pupil dilating (mydriatic_ effects of the belladonna extract, more commonly known as the deadly nightshade.


In 1819, Runge was invited to demonstrate to Goethe how belladonna extract causes a dilation of the pupil. He used a cat as an experimental subject. Goethe became impressed with the demonstration to which Runge said that:

“Nachdem Goethe mir seine größte Zufriedenheit sowol über die Erzählung des durch scheinbaren schwarzen Staar Geretteten, wie auch über das andere ausgesprochen, übergab er mir noch eine Schachtel mit Kaffeebohnen, die ein Grieche ihm als etwas Vorzügliches gesandt. “Auch diese können sie zu Ihren Untersuchungen brauchen,” sagte Goethe. Er hatte recht; denn bald darauf entdeckte ich darin das, wegen seines großen Stickstoffgehaltes so berühmt gewordene Coffein.”

In English means:

“After Goethe had expressed to me his greatest satisfaction regarding the account of the man whom I’d rescued [from serving in Napoleon’s army] by apparent “black star” [i.e., amaurosis, blindness] as well as the other, he handed me a carton of coffee beans, which a Greek had sent him as a delicacy. “You can also use these in your investigations,” said Goethe. He was right; for soon thereafter I discovered therein caffeine, which became so famous on account of its high nitrogen content.”

Within a few months later, Runge identified caffeine. He then studied chemistry in the universities of Jena and Berlin, where he obtained his doctorate degree. After touring Europe for three years, he taught chemistry at the University of Breslau until 1831. From then until 1852 he worked for a chemical company but was dismissed by a resentful manager. He died fifteen years later in poverty in Oranienburg.

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge Discoveries

Runge’s chemical work include the following:

  • Purine chemistry
  • Identification of caffeine
  • Discovery of the first coal tar dye or aniline blue
  • Coal tar products and various substances derived from coal tar
  • Paper chromatography
  • Pyrrole
  • Chinoline
  • Phenol
  • Thymol
  • Atropine

One of RUnge’s experiments involved him dropping reactant solutions on a blotting paper and then adding a drop of another reactant on top of the first drop. As the solution spreads through the blotting paper, they react and produce colored patterns. His works on these were published in two books: Farbenchemie. Musterbilder für Freunde des Schönen und zum Gebrauch für Zeichner, Maler, Verzierer und Zeugdrucker, dargestellt durch chemische Wechselwirkung and Der Bildungstrieb der Stoffe, veranschaulicht in selbstständig gewachsenen Bilder.

Runge was also the first one to notice the phenomenon of Liesegang rings in 1855. He observed these rings in the course of his experiments on the precipitation of reagents in blotting paper.


Runge Was Born in Germany

Born near 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.

Runge’s Experiment with Belladonna Led to a Major Discovery

While working as an apprentice to his uncle in a pharmacy when he was a teenager, Runge made his first discovery. When a nightshade extract went to his eye, he noticed that his pupil dilated. The compound responsible for this I atropine – a chemical in nightshade plants that blocks receptors for the neurotransmitter responsible for activating muscles. He recreated this observation using a cat’s eye. He then wrote a paper on the effects of atropine.

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, and 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 presentation, 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.

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.

Runge 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.

He Used His Knowledge and Skills in Chemistry to Improve His Domestic Life

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

He Died in Poverty

Unfortunately for him, 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.

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