Our birthday star for today is Constantin Fahlberg (22 Dec 1850 – 15 Aug 1910), the Russian chemist who, in 1878, discovered the surprisingly sweet taste of anhydroorthosulphaminebenzoic acid (better known to those of us without PhD’s in chemistry as saccharin), while working on coal tar compounds at the John Hopkins University.
What made him decide to taste the compound he created is not clear to me – he seems to have been quite a daring chemist to taste the stuff he concocted in the lab – but the bottom line is it must have been a thrilling taste-sensation, given that saccharin is said to be 220 times sweeter than cane sugar. Fahlberg dubbed the compound ‘saccharin’ after the Latin name for sugar.
Realising the potential of his discovery, he took out all the necessary patents and set up a saccharin factory in 1896 with his uncle, Dr Adoplh List. Churning out saccharin by the ton-load, Fahlberg soon became a very wealthy man – unlike some other inventors, he was lucky enough to reap the sweet rewards (pardon the pun) of his invention.
Over the years, saccharin became the subject of various controversies – from being considered an illegal substitute for sugar in certain foods, to being accused of being carcinogenic in the 1960s and 70s. No conclusive proof has however been found linking saccharine to cancer in humans, and today it is still one of the most widely used artificial sweeteners, together with sucralose and aspartame.