Friedrich Sertürner

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Friedrich Sertürner

About 100 years before Sir Head had his radial nerve severed, Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner, a chemist in the German town of Westphalia, became the first to isolate what he thought was the alkaloid that serves as the active ingredient in opium. Following a 52-step process using ammonia to separate the alkaloid, Sertürner isolated crystals he dubbed morphine, after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams [source: Altman]. Sertürner had good reason to adopt the name for his crystals -- he'd experimented with stray dogs in town and the drug had literally put the dogs to sleep. Minutes later, they went to sleep in a much more permanent fashion.

Despite the death of the dogs that were his first test subjects, the barely twentysomething Sertürner opted to move to human clinical trials, using himself and three 17-year-old friends. The chemist ingested and gave each of his friends a "grain" of morphine equal to about 30 milligrams [source: Cohen]. Sertürner handed out another round of grains 30 minutes later, and followed that by another round 15 minutes after that. In less than an hour, Sertürner and his friends had ingested 90 milligrams of morphine, ten times the recommended limit today [source: Altman].

In short order, it became clear he and his fellow test subjects had overdosed, so Sertürner induced vomiting using vinegar. Everyone lived, but at least one friend spent the night in a deep sleep. The chemist's crystals that he used himself to prove turned out to be the leading pain relief drug used still today.

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