Although archaeological evidence suggests people have smoked tobacco for more than 3,000 years, researchers have discovered and extracted tobacco's active ingredient--nicotine--only in the past three centuries. Nicotine has been the subject of much study ever since, and it has also been a lucrative product: tobacco companies worldwide manufacture at least five trillion cigarettes per year.
The 64 species of tobacco plants are native to the Americas.They're typically sticky plants with large leaves and large flowers. Biologically, tobacco plants belong to the nightshade family.They synthesize nicotine in their roots, then store it in their leaves, where the nicotine functions as an insecticide, protecting the plants against herbivores.
Sailors such as the Spanish conquistador Fernando Cortés brought tobacco from the Americas to Europe in the early 1500s. Jean Nicot, a French diplomat and scholar, sent tobacco from Portugal to France in 1560 as a cure for headaches suffered by the royal de Medici family. By the end of the century, Nicot's efforts made snuffing tobacco fashionable among the French and led to the use of his name in the term "nicotine."
During the same century, smoking became stylish in England as well; the writer and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh was responsible for popularizing it among English nobility. Despite the increasing European presence of tobacco, however, efforts to find its active ingredient failed for over a hundred more years.
Nicotine was first extracted in 1807 in Italy by the researcher Gaspare Cerioli, who called it tobacco's "essential oil." The French chemist Louis-Nicolas Vauquelin made the same discovery in 1809 without knowledge of Cerioli's work.
Physician Wilhelm Heinrich Posselt and chemist Karl Ludwig Reimann, two University of Heidelberg students, accomplished significant work in the extraction of nicotine--in a paper presented in 1828 to the medical faculty at their university, the two German researchers explained how they isolated nicotine in its completely pure form. They were the first researchers to do so.
In the nineteenth century, the scientific study of nicotine advanced further. Belgian chemist Louise Melsens established nicotine's correct chemical formula in 1843. Chemist M. Barral confirmed the formula in 1847, and researcher M. Schloesing determined nicotine's molecular weight that same year.
During the twentieth century, interest in nicotine increased dramatically. In 1904, researchers A. Pictet, P. Crépieux, and A. Rotschy became the first to synthesize nicotine in a laboratory. And in the 1950s, researchers started studying the metabolism of nicotine. Scientists weren't the only ones interested in nicotine; throughout the century, the chemical compound generated substantial social and legislative controversies over its use.
At the start of the new millennium, nicotine remains an intensely scrutinized substance. Nicotine's harmful effects are well-established; setting aside the approximately 4,000 other chemicals in cigarettes (such as arsenic and ammonia), nicotine is by itself associated with lung cancer, increased blood pressure, and distress for the respiratory and digestive systems. At the same time, contemporary nicotine research might lead to beneficial therapies for diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
- Gene Borio's Tobacco Timeline
- "Tobacco and Shamanism in South America;" Johannes Wilbert; 1993
- "Tobacco in History: The Cultures of Dependence;" Jordan Goodman; 1993
- Photo Credit Image by Flickr.com, courtesy of Panos
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