Marshall Gates and G. Tschudi announced synthesis of morphine in 1956. Considered to be the first true drug, it remains the gold standard for relieving severe pain.
Morphine is a molecule that can lay claim to being the original alkaloid and the first true drug, according to assistant professor Paul R. Blakemore and professor emeritus James D. White at Oregon State University, Corvallis.
Alkaloids are natural organic nitrogen-containing bases found mainly in plants. Morphine, a bitter white crystalline compound, is the principal alkaloid in the opium poppy Papaver somniferum. Traces of the compound, possibly from dietary sources, also occur in animal tissues and fluids, including human heart tissue and urine.
“The morphine story is one of the most enthralling in all of science,” Blakemore and White note. “Early attempts to unlock the mysteries of opium provided a major stimulus to the development of organic chemistry and, it may be argued, spawned the entire field of medicinal chemistry.”
The potent analgesic and euphoric properties of opium poppy pods have been known for thousands of years. Opium was used, for example, as a narcotic in Sumerian cultures in Asia Minor as early as 4000 B.C. Its use and addiction were widespread in Roman times. In the 16th century, the Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) popularized its use in Europe with the introduction of laudanum–a tincture, or alcoholic solution, of opium.
Morphine was first isolated in pure form from dried poppy resin by German apothecary Friedrich W. Sertürner (1783-1841) in the early 1800s. He named the compound “morphium” after Morpheus–the Greek god of dreams.
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Excerpted with permission, Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2005 American Chemical Society