Caventou, Joseph-Bienaimé

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Caventou, Joseph-Bienaimé

(b Saint-Omer, France, 30 June 1795; d. Paris, France, 5 May 1877),

chemistry, toxicology.

Son of Pierre-Vincent Caventou, military pharmacist and chief pharmacist of the civil hospital of Saint-Omer, Joseph-Bienaimé Caventou decided early in life to follow his father’s profession. After some preliminary training with his father he left for Paris, where he obtained an apprenticeship in a pharmacy and began course work at the School of Pharmacy and the Faculty of Sciences. In 1815 he competed successfully for an internship in hospital pharmacy, but the news of Napoleon’s return from Elba aroused his patriotic feelings to such an extent that he resigned his appointment to enlist as a military pharmacist. Caventou’s military service was of short duration. The small garrison where he was stationed in Holland surrendered soon after the French defeat at Waterloo, and before the end of 1815 he was back in Paris to resume his studies.

Caventou had by this time developed a keen interest in chemistry and, in order to supplement the meager allowance from his father, conceived the idea of writing a book on chemical nomenclature according to the classification adopted by Thenard. The work, Nouvelle nomenclature-chimique, appeared in 1816 as a practical handbook designed especially for beginners in chemistry and for those who were unfamiliar with the newest chemical terminology. In the meantime Caventou again competed successfully for an internship in hospital pharmacy and in 1816 received his appointment at the Saint-Antoine Hospital, where laboratory facilities to carry on his research were available. He published a chemical analysis of the daffodil by the end of 1816, of laburnum in 1817, and a treatise on pharmacy in 1819. These were followed in 1821 by an annotated French translation, made jointly with J. B. Kapeler, physician at the Saint-Antoine Hospital, of a German work by Johann Christoph Ebermaier on drug adulteration.

In 1826 Caventou became a member of the teaching staff of the École Supérieure de Pharmacie, in 1830 associate professor of chemistry, and in 1834 full professor of toxicology, a post he held until his retirement at the end of 1859. Despite the demands of teaching and research, he found time to direct a pharmacy on the rue Gaillon. In 1821 Caventou was admitted to the Academy of Medicine. In 1827 he and Pierre-Joseph Pelletier shared the Monty on Prize of 10,000 francs, awarded by the Academy of Sciences, for their discovery of quinine.

It was in 1817 that Caventou published his first joint paper with Pelletier, a twenty-nine-year-old owner of a pharmacy on the rue Jacob, who had already attraded favorable attention by his chemical analyses of plant substances. The young men had been drawn together by their mutual scientific interests, and until Pelletier’s death in 1842 their frequent collaboration resulted in a number of important discoveries in alkaloid chemistry. It is idle to speculate on Caventou’s development as a scientist had he not collaborated with Pelletier; but his most impressive scientific accomplishments came from this association, particularly during the years from 1817 to 1821. By the age of twenty-six, the achievements which would bring him most fame were already behind him. During this period both scientists had embarked on the investigation of natural products: the description of a new acid formed by the action of nitric acid on the nacreous material of human biliary calculi (1817); a study of the green pigment in leaves, which they named chlorophyll (1817); the separation of crotonic acid from croton oil (1818); the examination of carmine, the coloring matter in cochineal (1818); and the isolation of ambrein from ambergris (1820).

Far more significant, however, was their extraction of alkaline nitrogenous substances (alkaloids) from plants. When Pelletier and Caventou began this phase of their work, the stage had already been set for dramatic developments in alkaloid chemistry by the pioneer work on opium by such scientists as Derosne, Armand Seguin, and especially Sertürner, who was the first to recognize the alkaline nature of morphine and whose findings, published from 1805 to 1817, established him as its discoverer. In rapid succession Pelletier and Caventou isolated strychnine in 1818, brucine and veratrine (independently of Karl Meissner) in 1819, and cinchonine and quinine in 1820. They discovered caffeine in 1821, independently of Robiquet and Runge.

The discovery of quinine was by far the most dramatic result of their collaboration, and soon there was worldwide demand for quinine as a therapeutic agent. In a letter written to the Academy of Sciences in 1827 Pelletier and Caventou pointed out that by 1826 a burgeoning French industry was annually producing approximately 90,000 ounces of quinine sulfate from cinchona bark, enough to treat more than a million individuals. The basic and salifiable nature of these new alkaloids, as well as their physical characteristics, were elucidated by Pelletier and Caventou, who demonstrated that they contained oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon, but who failed, initially, to find nitrogen. Antoine Bussy’s meticulous analysis of morphine in 1822 and further joint investigations by Jean Dumas and Pelletier proved conclusively the presence of nitrogen in alkaloids.

Caventou’s lifelong interest in phytochemistry is reflected in numerous papers that he published in this field. In 1830 he collaborated with Pelletier and François to isolate the bitter crystalline principle, cahinca acid, from cahinca root (Chiococca racemosa L. Rubiaceae). As early as 1825, and for several years thereafter, he attempted to develop chemical tests for pathological conditions, especially tuberculosis. Although his results were inconclusive, his descriptions of his experiments, published much later in the Annates de chimie et de physique (1843), are of historical interest. His expertise in toxicology was recognized by his colleagues in the Academy of Medicine when he was called upon in 1839 and 1841 to report on cases dealing with arsenical poisoning. But Caventou’s major scientific output clearly belonged to his early years, when he firmly established a reputation as a gifted and original investigator in alkaloid chemistry.


I. Original Works. In addition to his Novuelle nomenclature chimique (Paris, 1816), mentioned in the text, Caventou’s earliest publications were “Recherches chimiques sur le narcisse des prés, Narcissus pseudo-narcissus, Linn.,” in Journal de pharmacie et des sciences accessories, 2 (1816), 540–549; “Examen chimique des fleurs du cytise des Alpes, Cytisus laburnum, Linn.,” ibid., 3 (1817), 306–309; and “Observations chimiques faites dans l’s analyse d’s un calcul cystique,” ibid., 369–373, Among Caventou’s most important publications were the following, published jointly with Pelletier: “Sur l’saction qu’s exerce l’acide nitrique sur la matiere nacrée des calculs biliaires humains, et sur le nouvel acide qui en résulte.” ibid., 292–305; “Essaianalytique sur la graine du médicinier cathartique jatropha curcas,” ibid, 4 (1818), 289–297; “Note sur un nouvel alcali,” in Annates de chimie et de physique, 2nd ser., 8 (1818), 323–324; “Sur la matiére verte des feuilles.” ibid. 9 (1818), 194–196; “Mémoire sur un nouvel alcali végé tal(la strychnine) trouvé dans la fève de Saint-Ignace, la noix vomique, etc.,” ibid., 10 (1819). 142–177: “Memoire sur une nouvelle base salifiable organique trouvée dans la fausse angusture. Brucaea antidysenterka,” ibid., 12 (1819), 113–148; “Examen chimique de plusieurs végétaux de la famille des colchicées, et du principe actif quils renferment…,” ibid., 14 (1820). 69–83; “Recherches chimiques sur les quinquinas,” ibid., 15 (1820), 289–318. 337–365; Analyse chimique des quinquina (Paris, 1821): “Lettre de MM. Pelletier et Caventou à MM. les membres de l’Acadé mieroyale des sciences, sur la fabrication du sulfate de qunine,” in Annales de chimie et de physique, 2nd ser., 34 (1818), 323–335; “Recherches chimiques sur quelques matières animates saines el morbides,” ibid., 3rd ser., 8 (1843), 321–346; and, with Pelletier and Francois. “Nouveau principe amer acide, eristallisé contenu dans l’sécorcede la racine de kahinça.” ibid., 2nd ser., 44 (1830), 291– 296. Caventou’s view that all pharmacy students should receive a rigorous training in chemistry is elucidated in his Traité élémentaire de pharmacie théorique d’s après l’etat actuel de la chimie… (Paris, 1819). His work in toxicology is reflected in two reports: Rapport sur un empoisonnement par l’acide arsénieux, fait à I Academic royale de médecine… (Paris, 1839); and Rapport sur les moyens de constater la présence de (l’arsenic dans les empoisonnements par ce taxique, au nom de l’s Académic royale de médecine… (Paris, 1841). For a fuller listing of Caventou’s papers, see Royal Society of London, Catalogue of Scientific Papers (1800–1863), I (London, 1867), 847–848.

II. Secondary Literature See Étienne Jules Bergeron, Éloge de Caventou (Paris, 1897); and Marcel Delépine, “Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Caventou,” in Journal of Chemical Education, 28 (1951), 454 –461.

Alex Berman