Pelletier, Pierre-Joseph

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(b.Paris, France, 22 March 1788; d. Paris, 19 July 1842)

chemistry, pharmacy.

Following the example of his distinguished father, Bertrand Pelletier, Pierre-Joseph chose pharmacy and chemistry as his lifework. In 1810 he qualified as a pharmacist after achieving a brilliant scholastic record at the Ecole de Pharmacie. Pelletier earned his docteur es sciences in 1812 and in 1815 was named assistant professor of natural history of drugs at the Ecole de Pharmacie, but he lectured mainly on mineralogy. which he had studied under R. J. Hauy. In 1825 he was promoted to full professor of natural history, succeeding Pierre Robiquet, and in 1832 he became assistant director of the school. In addition to his academic responsibilities and research commitments, Pelletier directed a pharmacy on the rue Jacob and a chemical plant at Clichy.

Pelletier’s early scientific efforts, mostly concerned with the analysis of gum resins and coloring matter in plants, culminated in 1817 with a brilliant work onthe isolation of emetine in an impure form. His collaborator in this work was Francois Magendie. The investigation of gum resins, begun by Pelletier in a report on opopanax in 1811, was followed in the next two years by publications on sagapenum, asafetida, bdellium, myrrh, galbanum, and caranna gum. From 1813 to 1817 his articles dealt mainly with natural products (sarcocolla, toad venom, amber, olive gum) and coloring matter contained in red sandalwood, alkanet, and curcuma (written with H. A. Vogel). In 1817 the discovery by Pelletier and Magendie of the “matiere vomitive” in ipecac root, named emetine by Pelletier and verified by animal experiments, was announced in a paper read before the Academie des Sciences.

The period from 1817 to 1821 was remarkably productive for Pelletier, who had acquired a new collaborator in Joseph-Bienaimé Caventou, a gifted young pharmacy intern attached to the Saint-Antoine Hospital in Paris. Their keen interest in the chemistry of natural products led them in 1817 to study the action of nitric acid on the nacreous material of human biliary calculi and the green pigment in leaves, which they were the first to name chlorophyll. In 1818 they obtained crotonic acid from croton oil and analyzed carmine in cochineal. Two years later, in 1820, Pelletier and Caventou isolated ambrein from ambergris. But it was their discovery of a number of plant alkaloids that brought them international fame: strychnine (1818); brucine (1819), independently of Karl Meissner; cinchonine, first obtained by B. A. Gomes in 1810 but again isolated and more extensively studied by Pelletier and Caventou (1820); quinine, the most important of their discoveries from a therapeutic standpoint (1820); and caffeine (1821), independently of Robiquet and Runge. Pelletier also published his own research on gold compounds (1820); piperine (1821), and various species of cinchona(1821).

For the remaining two decades of his life Pelletier continued his alkaloid and phytochemical investigations. He also studied the decomposition products of pine, resin, amber, and bitumen. In 1823 the results of a combustion analysis of nine alkaloids, undertaken by Pelletier and J.-B. Dumas, provided conclusive evidence for the presence of nitrogen in alkaloids, a fact that Pelletier and Caventou had earlier failed to ascertain. In 1832 Pelletier reported his discovery of narceine, a new opium alkaloid, to the Academy. The following year he published, with J. P. Couerbe, a study of picrotoxin. But relations between the two collaborators became embittered when Couerbe, Pelletier’s former student and chef des travaux at his chemical plant, refused to support Pelletier’s claim to priority in the isloation of the baine, another opium alkaloid. Instead, Couerbe gave credit for the discovery of the bain (called paramorphine by Pelletier) to Thiboumery, who had been employed by Pelletier as directeur des travux, A happier association was subsequently established with Philippe Walter. This colaboration led to the publication of a number of interesting papers on oily hydrocarbons obtained from the destructive distillation of amber and bitumen. One of these studies (1837–1838), of an oily by-product of pine resin used in the manufacture of illuminating gas, resulted in their discovery of a substance that they designated as “retinniaphte,” now known as toluene (C7H8).

After 1821, Pelletier and Caventou still conducted a few investigations jointly including further researches on strychnine and procedures for its extraction from nux vomica (1822); chemical examination of upas (1824); the manufacture of quinine sulfate (1827); and the isolation of cahinca acid, the bitter crystalline substance in cahinca root (1830), with Andre Francois. Although ably carried out, this work was overshadowed by their earlier discoveries. Among Pelletier’s other collaborative efforts were an analysis, undertaken with Corriol, of a species of cinchona (Cinchona cordifolia). which enabled them to isolale aricine in 1829; a chemical examination of curare, with Petroz, in 1829; and a posthumous memoir on guaiacum with H. Sainte-Claire Devillie, published in 1844.

Pelletier was named a member of the Paris Academic de Medecine in 1820 and was elected to the Academie des Sciences in 1840. In 1827 Pelletier and Caventou were awarded the Montyon Prize of 10,000 francs by the latter academy in recognition of their discovery of quinine. Both men were also honored in 1900 by an impressive status erected on the boulevard St.-Michel, which was destroyed during the German occupation of Paris in World War II but was replaced by another monument dedicated in 1951. A firm defender of the established political order, Pelletier was, in Caventou’s words, “partisan aussi sincere qu’eclaire de nos institutions monarchiques et constitutionnells.”


I. Original Works. Pelletier’s earlier papers include “Analyse de l’opopanax,” in Annales du chimie, 79 (1811), 90–99; “Analyse du galbanum,”, in Bulletin de pharmacie, 4 (1812) 97–102; “Réflexions sur le tannin et sur quelques combinaisons nouvelles de l’acide gallique avec des substances végétales,” in Annales de chimie, 87 (1813), 103–108, 218–219; “Examen chimique de quelques substances colorantes de nature résineuse,” in Bulletin de pharmacie, 6 (1814), 432–453; “Memoire sur la gomme d’olivier,” in Journal de Pharmacie, 2 (1816), 337–343; and “Recheaches chimiques et physiologiques sur l’ipécacuanha,” in Annales de chimie et de physique, 4 (1817), 172–185, written with F.Magendie, For the most important joint publicaitions of Pelletier and Caventou, see Alex Berman, “Caventou,” in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, III, 160

Other representative works by Pelletier, written alone or in collaboration, are “Faits pour servir a l’histoire de l’or”, in Annales de chimie et de physique,15 (1820), 5–26, 113–127; “Examen chimique du poivre (Piper nigrum),” ibid.,16 (1821), 337–351; “Recherches sur la composition élémentarine et sur quelques propriétés caracteristiques des bases salifiables organiques,” ibid.,24 (1823), 163–191, written with J.-B.Dumas; “Note sur la cafeine,” in Journal de pharmacie, 12 (1826), 229–233; “Notice sur une nouvelle base salifable organique venant du Pérou,” ibid.,15 (1829), 565–568, written with Corriol “Examenchimique du curare,” in Annales de chimie et de physique, 40 (1829), 213–219, written with Petroz; “Nouvelles recherches sur l’opium”, ibid., 50 (1832), 240–280; “Nouvelle analyse de la coque du Levant,” ibid,,., 54 (1833). 178–208, written with Couerbe; and “Examen chimique des produits provenant du traitement de la resine pour l’élclairage au gaz”, ibid., 67 (1838), 269–303, written with P.Walter, For a more complete listing of Pelletier’s articles, see Royel Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, IV , 806–810.

II. Secondary Literature. See A. Bussy. “Discours prononce; a la distribution des prix de l’Écloe de pharmacie pour l’annee 1842, suivi d’une notice sur feu Pelletier, par A.Bussy, secretaire de l’École,” in Journal de pharmacie et de chimie, 3rd ser, 3 (1843), 48–58; J. B.Caventou,” Discours prononce sur la tombe de M.Pelletier,” in Bulletin de l’Academie royale de médecine, 7 (1841–1852), 1011–1016; Centenaire de l’École superieure de pharmacie, 1803–1903 (Pairs, 1904), 264–265, 283–284, 295–297 , 357; Marcel Delépine, “Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Caventou,” in Journal of Chemical Eduction, 28 (1951), 454–461; J. B.Dumas, Discours prononce aux funerailles de. M.Pelletier, le 22 Juillet 1842(Pairs, 1842); M. M.Janot, “Joseph Pelletier, 1788–1842,” in Figures pharmaceutiques françaises (Paris, 1953), 59–64; J. R.Partington, A History of Chemistry, IV (London New York, 1964), 244–245, 558, and passim; and Horst Real and Wolfgang Schneider, “Wer entedeckte Chinin und Cinchonin?” in Beiträge zur Geschichte der Pharmazie, 22 , no. 3 (1970), 17–19.

Alex Berman

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