By SAMUEL P. SADTLER, Ph.D.

[Footnote: Introductory lecture, Course of 1883-84, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy.]

The sciences of to-day present, as might be expected, a very different aspect from the same branches of knowledge as they appeared fifty or sixty years ago. It is not merely that the mass of observations in most of these lines of study has enormously increased during this interval. Were that all, the change could hardly be considered as an unmixed benefit, because of the increased difficulty of assimilation of this additional matter. Many would be the contradictions in the observations and hopeless would be the task of bringing order out of such a chaos. The advance in the several branches of knowledge has been largely one resulting from improved methods of study, rather than one following simply from diligence in the application of the old ways.

Let us turn to chemistry for our illustration of this. The chemistry of the last century and the early decades of this was largely a descriptive science, such as the natural history branches, zoology, and botany are still in great part. Reasonably exact mineral analyses were made, it is true, but the laws of chemical combination and the fundamental conceptions of atoms and molecules had not been as yet generally established. Now, this want of comprehensive views of chemical reactions, their why and wherefore, was bad enough as it affected the study of inorganic and metallic compounds, but what must have been the conditions for studying the complex compounds of carbon, so widely spread in the vegetable and animal kingdoms. Their number is so enormous that, in the absence of any established relationships, not much more than a mere enumeration was possible for the student of this branch of chemistry. It is only within the last twenty years that chemists have attained to any comprehensive views at all in the domain of organic chemistry. It has been found possible to gradually range most carbon compounds under two categories, either as marsh-gas or as benzol derivatives, as fatty compounds or as aromatic compounds.

To do this, methods of analysis very different from those used in mineral chemistry had to be applied. The mere finding out of percentage composition tells us little or nothing about an organic compound. What the elements are that compose the compound is not to be found out. That can be told beforehand with almost absolute certainty. What is wanted is to know how the atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen are linked together, for, strange to say, these differences of groupings, which may be found to exist between these three or four elements, endow the compounds with radically different properties and serve us as a basis of classification.

The development of this part of chemistry, therefore, required very different methods of research. Instead of at once destroying a compound in order to learn of what elements it was composed, we submit it to a course of treatment with reagents, which take it apart very gradually, or modify it in the production of some related substance. In this way, we are enabled to establish its relations with well defined classes and to put it in its proper place. Of equal importance with the analytical method of study, however, is the synthetical. This method of research, as applied to organic compounds, embodies in it the highest triumphs of modern chemistry. It has been most fruitful of results, both theoretical and practical. Within recent years, hundreds of the products of vegetable and animal life have been built up from simpler compounds. Thousands of valuable dye-colors and other compounds used in the arts attest its practical value. It may, therefore, seem anomalous when I say that one of the most important of all the classes of organic compounds has not shared in this advance.

The alkaloids, that most important class from a medical and pharmaceutical point of view, have until quite recently been defined in the books simply as "vegetable bases, containing nitrogen." Whether they were marsh-gas or benzol derivatives was not made out; how the four elements, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, were grouped together in them was absolutely a thing unknown. Chemists all admitted two things--first, that their constitution was very complex, and, second, that the synthesis of any of the more important medicinal alkaloids would be an eminently desirable thing to effect from every point of view. Within the last five years, however, quite considerable progress has been made in arriving at a clearer understanding of these most important compounds, and I shall offer to your attention this evening a brief statement of what has been done and what seems likely to be accomplished in the near future.

It was early recognized that the alkaloids were complex amines or ammonia derivatives. The more or less strongly marked basic character of these bodies, the presence of nitrogen as an essential element, and, above all, the analogy shown to ammonia in the way these bases united with acids to form salts, not by replacement of the hydrogen of the acid, but by direct addition of acid and base, pointed unmistakably to this constitution. But with this granted, the simplest alkaloid formulas, those of conine, CHN, and nicotine, CHN, still showed that the amine molecule contained quite complex groups of carbon and hydrogen atoms, and the great majority of the alkaloids--the non-volatile ones--contained groups in which the three elements, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, all entered. Hence the difficulty in acquiring a knowledge of the molecular structure of those alkaloids at all comparable with that attained in the case of other organic compounds. Of course synthesis could not be applied until analysis had revealed something of the molecular grouping of these compounds, so the action of different classes of reagents was tried upon the alkaloids.

Before summarizing the results of this study of the decomposition and alteration products of the alkaloids, a brief reference to a related class of organic compounds will be of assistance to those unfamiliar with recent researches in this field.