Sertürner, Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Ferdinand

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(b. Neuhaus, near Paderborn, Germany, 19 June 1783; d. Hameln, Germany 20 February 1841), pharmacology.

Sertürner’s parents were Austrian. His father, Joseph Simon Serdinner (the spelling varies), married Marie Therese Brockmann and entered the service of Friedrich Wilhelm, prince-bishop of Paderborn, his son’s godfather, as engineer and state building inspector. In 1798 Sertürner’s father and his princely patron both died. The youth, then fifteen, was apprenticed to Cramer, the court apothecary, and in 1803 passed his assistant’s test with excellent marks. In 1806 Sertürner became assistant to Hink, the town apothecary of Einbeck. In 1809 the French government of Westphalia licensed him to open his own pharmacy. Upon the return of the Hanoverian government, the license was revoked as an act of the French occupation forces. After a long, unsuccessful litigation, Sertürner took over the town pharmacy of Hameln in 1820. The following year he married Leonore von Rettberg. A capable assistant relieved him of the routine work in the prosperous pharmacy and thus, financially secure, he was able to devote himself to his scientific interests.

In later years Sertürner apparently suffered increasingly from mental disturbances, and his hypochondria became quite evident during his last years.

Aside from his chemical-pharmaceutical work, his passion was the construction of firearms. He designed a breechloader and tested new alloys for bullets. An arms manufacturer named Stürmer undertook the manufacture of these novelties and demonstrated them to the war ministries of Hannover and Prussia.

In his first scientific work Sertürner endeavored to isolate the “sleep-inducing factor” in opium and discovered a process whereby he could use ammonia to separate practically pure morphine from aqueous clarified opium extract. Until then Scheele’s work had led to the assumption that all active substances in plants were acids. Sertürner called the newly discovered “sleep-inducing factor” a “vegetable alkali,” He stated that this was most certainly the first representative of a new class of plant matter and called for the further search for other vegetable alkalies. Thus the foundation was laid for alkaloid chemistry. The introduction of morphine into pharmaceutics was later compared to the introduction of iron into metallurgy.

Sertürner’s first publications on morphine in 1805 and 1806 failed to attract attention. In 1817, when Sertürner republished the results of his research in enlarged and more detailed form, the importance of his work was recognized.

Considering the obstacles confronting Sertürner’s work on morphine, it is surprising that he succeeded at all. An autodidact with only sparse knowledge of the relevant literature, he conducted his research with the simplest equipment while performing the strenuous duties of an apothecary’s assistant. Sometimes years elapsed between his research projects. Sertürner played an important part in that period of organic chemistry—between Scheele and F. F. Runge—when fundamental research was carried out by gifted investigators (mostly pharmacists) with only limited equipment.

Before Davy, Sertürner established in 1806 that caustic alkalies are not elements, but compounds of oxygen plus another combustible element similar to hydrogen. He failed, however, to interest a scientific journal in publishing his paper.

Sertütner’s tendency toward speculation became so pronounced that even his most advanced colleagues often failed to comprehend him. His views on the life element “zoon,” on the “cold nature of sunlight,” on “atmospheric heat,” and on “fire oxide” were unfounded and failed to stimulate productive thinking. Consequently, Sertürner acquired a dubious reputation, which partly explains why his two further important discoveries were ignored.

He developed a theory on the formation of ether from alcohol and sulfuric acid and established the formulas for three different “sulphovinic acids” (ethyl sulfuric acids). Although he came close to being correct, he met with universal rejection.

No attention was paid to his paper dealing with the cholera epidemics prevalent at the time. In this work he was the first to point out the real cause of the disease. On the basis of the known fact that objects exposed to severe cold or heat no longer transmitted the disease, he ascribed its cause to a toxic, self-reproducing living agent.

Only his work on morphine brought Sertüner numerous honors.


I Original Works. Sertürner’s writings include System der chemischen Physik, 2 vols. (Göttingen, 1820–1822); Annalen für das Universalsystem der Elemente, 3 vols. (Göttinggen, 1826–1829); Dringende Aufforderung an das deutsche Vaterland, in Beziehung der orientalischen Brechruhr (Göttingen, 1831); Einige Belehrungen für das gebildete und gelehrte Publikum über Naturwissenschaften im allgemeinen, mit besonderer Rücksicht auf das gemeine Leben... (Göttingen, 1838); and Franz Krömeke, ed., Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner, der Entdecker der Morphiums. Lebensbild und Neudruck der Original-Morphiumarbeiten (Jena, 1925).

II . Secondary Literature. See Hermann Coenen, “Über das Jahr der Morphiumentdeckung Sertürners in Paderborn,” in Archiv der Pahrmazie, 287 (1954), 166–180; F . von Gizyki, “Die Aufnahme des Morphins in den Arzneischatz,: in Deutsche Apotheker-Zeitung, 96 (1956), 583–584; P.J. Hanzlik, “125the Anniversary of the Discovery of Morphine by Sertürner,” in journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association, 18 (1929), 375–384; George Lockemann, “Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner,” in Zeitschrift für angewandte Chemie, 37 , no. 30(1924), 526–532; Hermann Trommsdorff, “Trommsdorff und Sertürner; Johann Bartholomä Trommsdorff und seine Zeitgenossen. Teil 2,” in Jahrbücher der Akademie gemeinnütziger Wissenschaften in Erfurt, 55 (1941), 133–243; and J. Valentin, “Der erkenntnis-theoretische Wandel Sertürners im Jahre 1804,” in Deutsche Apotheker-Zeithng, 97 (1957), 573–574.

Eberhard Schmauderer