Who Discovered Caffeine?

September 29, 2017 4 min read

Discovery of caffeine

 Coffee from a plantation in Brazil (Photo byFernando Rebelo/Creative Commons)

Perhaps it would have been more apt for the man who discovered caffeine to call out "Arabica!" instead of "Eureka!" Nearly 200 years ago the German physician Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge first isolated and purified the white powder of the chemical we call caffeine.

In 1819 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe gave Runge a box of Arabian mocha beans and asked him to analyze them. Caffeine eventually was isolated from 62 other plant species, including tea, cocoa nuts and yerba mate.

This was not the first time caffeine was used. Far from it. Humans have been ingesting food and beverages containing caffeine since prehistoric times.

In fact, there is a legend from China that says in 2737 B.C. the emperor Shen Nung was served a cup of hot water into which tea leaves fell. The practice of brewing tea spread and caught on around the world, says an article at Bryn Mawr University's website.

At some point scientists quit fooling around with alchemy and started seriously studying real chemistry. Runge first came to Goethe's attention when he learned Runge was working on experiments involving belladonna extract.

Poet and scientist collaborate

A Web page on the University of Bristol's site tells the following account, written by Simon Tilling, of Goethe and Runge:

Goethe was one of the world's greatest poets, and Europe's first great literary celebrity. In his later years, Goethe turned his considerable intellect to the sciences, studying, amongst other things, pharmacy, chemistry and botany. At the time, Runge was studying under the chemist Doebereiner (1780-1849), who was greatly admired by Goethe; it was through the friendship and mutual admiration of these two great men that Runge was invited to visit.

Goethe was shown the results of the young scientist's investigations into belladonna extract, and, suitably impressed, presented Runge with a small box of rare Arabian mocha beans, with the request that he perform an analysis. Within months Runge had successfully isolated the world's first pure caffeine sample.

In the book The World Of Caffeine, the authors wrote, "It was a result of an encounter between a scientist and a poet that caffeine was first revealed to the world; a curiously symbolic origin when one considers the vast panorama of the drug's history, encompassing, as it does, so much of the disparate worlds of science and culture."

Later, during a stellar career in purine chemistry, Runge was one of the people credited with discovering quinine. Quinine was used to treat malaria and is still in use for that purpose in parts of the world. He also synthesized aniline blue, an artificial organic coloring made from coal tar. Runge was a pioneer in the process of paper chromatography.

Runge is fired

In 1852 a new owner took over the company Runge worked for. He fired the brilliant chemist over a dispute about pursuing further developments in the field. Runge lived an impoverished life until 1867, when he died in obscurity.

U.S. National Public Radio published a February 2016 story titled "Caffeine for Sale: The Hidden Trade of the World's Favorite Stimulant" about how caffeine is removed from coffee beans and then where it goes after the decaf coffee is made.

Now there is a huge, worldwide trade in caffeine extracted from coffee beans. It is used in soda, energy drinks, medications and candies that have no natural caffeine content. And people wonder if synthetic caffeine is more dangerous than caffeine from natural sources. Scientists say there is no difference between the two.

Investigative reporter Murray Carpenter told Huffington Post there is little difference between natural and synthetic caffeine:

'It's really the same chemical, whether it's carved away from an ingredient in which caffeine naturally exists, such as guarana or kola nuts, or it's cobbled together in a laboratory. Synthetic caffeine is cheaper and much more widely used. But if both are pure, natural-sourced and chemical caffeine should have same effects. There's nothing wrong with natural caffeine, but there's no additional health benefit to it. It's more about if you don't want your caffeine coming out of pharmaceutical plant in China'


After Chinese emperor Shen Nung began brewing tea, the beverage spread across the world. About 3,000 years later, Peter Stuyvesant brought tea to colonists at New Amesterdam, now called New York. Iced tea came much later, in 1904 at the St. Louis World's Fair.

The history of coffee is also enshrouded in the forgotten memories of prehistory. But legend says an Ethiopian goatherd noticed his goats frolicking energetically after eating some seeds from coffee plants.
PBS.org says in the article about the history of coffee:
Kaldi tried the fruit for himself and had a similar reaction. After witnessing their strange behavior, a monk took some of the fruit back to his fellow monks; they too spent the night awake and alert. Of course, they would have been reacting to coffee's high dose of caffeine. This natural stimulant also serves as an inborn plant pesticide, protecting the coffee fruit from insects.

'Wine of Araby'

Long before Runge isolated and purified caffeine, coffee was known as a stimulant in Africa and Arabia. PBS writes:

Coffee cultivation and trade began on the Arabian Peninsula. By the 15th century, coffee was being grown in the Yemeni district of Arabia and by the 16th century it was known in Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey.

Coffee was not only enjoyed in homes, but also in the many public coffee houses called qahveh khaneh, which began to appear in cities across the Near East. The popularity of the coffee houses was unequaled and people frequented them for all kinds of social activity. 

Not only did the patrons drink coffee and engage in conversation, but they also listened to music, watched performers, played chess and kept current on the news.  Coffee houses quickly became such an important center for the exchange of information that they were often referred to as 'Schools of the Wise.'

With thousands of pilgrims visiting the holy city of Mecca each year from all over the world, knowledge of this 'wine of Araby' began to spread. 

Now coffee is made in a large variety of ways. About 90 percent of the world's adults take caffeine in one form or another. Thanks to Runge, caffeine can be extracted and added to products that do not naturally contain it. Scientists also make artificial caffeine.

Mark Miller
Mark Miller

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