The cocaine pioneers on the trail of a product with an almost mystical aura

The cocaine pioneers on the trail of a product with an almost mystical aura

Almost silently, the one of Dr. Wöhler ordered freight into the hold. In the port of Trieste, this morning of August 26, 1859, nobody pays any attention to this bundle of stunted leaves, weighing barely 10 kilos, coming from the hold of the three-master Novara among the 26,000 exotic specimens brought back by a mythical creature 551 days around the world. The Austrian Empire is celebrating the return of this scientific expedition, whose riches will soon flow into the Museum of Natural History under construction in Vienna. But for chemist Friedrich Wöhler, this bag of leaves, recovered in Bolivia by imperial explorers at the price of incredible adventures, is far more important. It is a treasure destined to be examined from all angles in his laboratory at the University of Göttingen in Lower Saxony.

The scientist calls Albert Niemann, the most promising of his students, over to him. He entrusts this 26-year-old student with the secret mission: to uncover the mysteries of the coca leaf. Under the doctoral student’s fingers hatch the plant with pungent scents that centuries-old legends, perhaps millennia, give an almost mystical aura. According to the stories of missionaries, botanists and other adventurers, the coca leaf bestows superhuman strength, heals the sick, relieves physical and mental ailments.

Sitting in front of his bunk, Niemann is not allowed to conjure up spirits, but to pursue science. He knows that famous scholars have studied coca before him. Jussieu, Gaedcke, Markham… none could determine its chemical formula. He also knows that the competition is tough. Isolating the active compounds in this plant is a popular challenge among biologists in the Old Continent. But he alone has so much raw material.

Day and night merge in the darkness of the laboratory. Niemann wants his mentor Dr. Woehler not disappoint. By turning to coca, the student opens a bracket in his promising work on the combination of ethylene and sulfur dichloride, also called “mustard gas,” a discovery that could become a formidable weapon in modern warfare.

Bold Experiments

Then make room for coca. Niemann washes the sheets in an alcoholic solution, tinted with a few traces of sulfuric acid. He draws a paste out of it, then mixes it with baking soda and redistills it to get elongated white crystals. Thus mixed, kneaded and reduced, the active principle gradually appears, like a photograph passed through the developer in the darkroom. No sooner have the other students returned to class than the researcher succeeds in isolating the chemical basis of this strong alkaloid. He will christen it “cocaine”.

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