What’s in a name?

uric acid crystalsAdolf Schlieper was a German textile manufacturer who had gained some chemical experience working in the laboratory of Justus von Liebig, one of the leading chemists of the era.  Schlieper had worked on uric acid, a white crystalline substance which had been isolated from urinary stones by Scheele almost a hundred years earlier.  Uric acid is found in small amounts in the urine of all carnivores and is the major component in the excrement of birds, scaly reptiles, caterpillars, and by some quirk of evolution, Dalmation dogs.
Deposits of uric acid in joints cause the painful condition known as gout.  Schlieper’s work on uric acid never amounted to very much.  His main contribution to science was that he gave some of the chemicals he had been working with to another young German chemist, Adolf von Baeyer.  His interest aroused, Baeyer began to carry out research on uric acid and its derivatives.  Indeed, it was one of these derivatives which brought Baeyer lasting fame.  Starting with uric acid, he prepared a brand new, white crystalline compound which he christened “barbituric acid.”
There are several theories as to why Baeyer chose this particular name.  Some contend that the compound was named after a Munich waitress who had often provided the starting material required for the research.  Others say that the discovery took place on St. Barbara’s day.  Baeyer himself implied in his lectures that at the time he was in love with a Miss Barbara.  (This of course does not negate the waitress story.)  Although the origin of the name may be contentious, there is no doubt that Baeyer’s discovery of barbituric acid laid the foundation for the development of one of the most important classes of medicinal drugs, the barbiturates.
The importance of these compounds is based on the fact that they are central nervous system depressants and can induce effects ranging from mild sedation to deep sleep.  Barbiturates are used in many prescription sleep medications and are also widely employed in surgical anesthesia.  Von Baeyer never noted any sedative effect of barbituric acid.  This is not surprising, because barbituric acid itself has absolutely no hypnotic properties.  It was left up to Emil Fischer, Baeyer’s most famous student, to discover that a derivative of barbituric acid, known as barbital, could induce sleep.  Almost fifty years after Baeyer’s first synthesis of barbituric acid, Fischer working with the physician Joseph von Mering, showed that a single injection of barbital in a dog caused the animal to fall asleep.  In light of this effect, Fischer renamed the substance “Veronal,” after Verona in Italy, which he considered to be the most restful city in the world.

Joe Schwarcz

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