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Who was Ira Remsen?


I bet you’ve never ever heard of this 19th Century New Yorker, but it is extremely likely that you’ve used his invention. So who was he?

Ira Remsen was born on 10 February 1846 and grew up to be a leading chemist after studying in Germany. On returning home to his native America he led a distinguished career as a leading chemist and became only the second president of John Hopkins University.

In 1879 while working with fellow chemist Constantin Fahlberg, he made an accidental discovery that would change the course of his life and career. Whilst working on coal tar derivatives he ate some rolls at dinner and noted that they tasted initially sweet but then bitter. His wife tasted nothing wrong with the rolls, but Fahlberg realised that his fingers had picked up some of the chemicals he had been working on in the lab and this had accidentally flavoured his food. Intrigued the next day back in his lab he discovered that the product was the oxidation of a chemical called o-toluenesulfonamide, he named his discovery saccharin. Together with Remsen his research was published in 1880.

Later the two men fell out publicly with Fahlberg profiting from their discovery whilst Remsen was angered by Fahlberg’s perceived dishonesty of not crediting him as the head of the laboratory.

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