February 8 – Happy Birthday, Bernard Courtois

Posted on February 8, 2014

This chemist and businessman was the first person known to have isolated morphine and the person who discovered the element iodine. Unfortunately, Bernard Courtois, born in France on this date in 1777, earned very little money or renown for his discoveries.

Courtois's dad had a business making potassium nitrate for gunpowder. Somehow, despite all the wars fought in Europe at the time, the business limped along and eventually failed. Apparently the elder Courtois died shortly after getting out of debtor's prison.

Courtois took over the family business, interrupting his chemist job and work on morphine. At one point there was a shortage of wood ash, from which potassium nitrate was obtained, so he started getting it from seaweed, which was plentiful on the nearby beaches. It was while he was isolating sodium and potassium from seaweed ash that Courtois made his most important discovery.

It was an accident (as so many discoveries are)!

Courtois apparently added too much sulfuric acid to the seaweed ash, and he observed a violet vapor cloud that condensed on cold objects, forming shiny dark crystals.

Courtois experimented with the substance and found that it combined easily with hydrogen and phosphorous but not so easily with oxygen or carbon. He tried to make it explode—aren't chemists always trying to do that?—and found that ammonia did the trick.

Courtois turned his findings over to two chemists, who announced the discovery of iodine in 1813. Apparently Courtois was eventually acknowledged as the true discoverer and was even awarded 6,000 francs for his finding—but, as his obituary later pointed out, he didn't take out a certificate of invention and continued to struggle financially until he died pretty much penniless at age 62.

Why do we iodize table salt?

Iodine deficiency leads to problems—problems that about two billion people in the world face. 

As a matter of fact, iodine deficiency is “the leading preventable cause of intellectual and developmental disabilities.”  In other words, it's a common problem, but it's simple to solve the problem:

Simply put a tiny amount of iodine in table salt. Cheap and easy.

Did you know, though, that an opened container of iodized table salt will lose its iodine content in about four weeks? Yikes—my salt container is way older than that!

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