Bernard Courtois

Last updated
Bernard Courtois
Born(1777-02-08)8 February 1777
Dijon, France
Died27 September 1838(1838-09-27) (aged 61)
Nationality French
Known for
Spouse(s)Madeleine Morand
Partner(s)Madeleine Morand
  • Jean-Baptiste Courtois
  • Marie Blé Fairbanks

Bernard Courtois, also spelled Barnard Courtois, (8 February 1777 – 27 September 1838) [1] was a French chemist credited with first isolating iodine and morphine.

France Republic in Europe with several non-European regions

France, officially the French Republic, is a country whose territory consists of metropolitan France in Western Europe and several overseas regions and territories. The metropolitan area of France extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the English Channel and the North Sea, and from the Rhine to the Atlantic Ocean. It is bordered by Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany to the northeast, Switzerland and Italy to the east, and Andorra and Spain to the south. The overseas territories include French Guiana in South America and several islands in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. The country's 18 integral regions span a combined area of 643,801 square kilometres (248,573 sq mi) and a total population of 67.02 million. France is a unitary semi-presidential republic with its capital in Paris, the country's largest city and main cultural and commercial centre. Other major urban areas include Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lille and Nice.

Chemist Scientist trained in the study of chemistry

A chemist is a scientist trained in the study of chemistry. Chemists study the composition of matter and its properties. Chemists carefully describe the properties they study in terms of quantities, with detail on the level of molecules and their component atoms. Chemists carefully measure substance proportions, reaction rates, and other chemical properties. The word 'chemist' is also used to address Pharmacists in Commonwealth English.

Iodine Chemical element with atomic number 53

Iodine is a chemical element with the symbol I and atomic number 53. The heaviest of the stable halogens, it exists as a lustrous, purple-black non-metallic solid at standard conditions that melts to form a deep violet liquid at 114 degrees Celsius, and boils to a violet gas at 184 degrees Celsius. The element was discovered by the French chemist Bernard Courtois in 1811. It was named two years later by Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac from this property, after the Greek ἰώδης "violet-coloured".


Early life

Courtois was born in Dijon and grew up in the prestigious surroundings of his father's workplace at the Dijon Academy. The Academy, where the family lived, was a small hotel that had been converted for scientific studies. Courtois' father, Jean-Baptiste, worked for the chemist Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau as well as for the Academy as a pharmacist and was called by his family pharmacien de l'Academie. When Courtois was twelve the family moved to the Saint-Medard Nitrary, an experimental nitrate plant which Jean-Baptiste bought from Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau and his partner. [2]

Dijon Prefecture and commune in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, France

Dijon is a city in eastern France, capital of the Côte-d'Or département in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region.

Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau French chemist and politician

Louis-Bernard Guyton, Baron de Morveau was a French chemist and politician. He is credited with producing the first systematic method of chemical nomenclature.

Pharmacist healthcare professional who practices in pharmacy

Pharmacists, also known as chemists or druggists, are health professionals who practice in pharmacy, the field of health sciences focusing on safe and effective medication use. Pharmacists undergo university-level education to understand the biochemical mechanisms and actions of drugs, drug uses, therapeutic roles, side effects, potential drug interactions, and monitoring parameters. This is mated to anatomy, physiology, and pathophysiology. Pharmacists interpret and communicate this specialized knowledge to patients, physicians, and other health care providers.

Mid life

Courtois and his brother Pierre learned the trade of making potassium nitrate for gunpowder for the French Revolution. Courtois, however, branched off from this venture to learn chemistry. Courtois lived at Saint-Medard Nitrary until he was about eighteen, when he left his family home to begin his trade apprenticeship in chemistry in Auxerre. Here for three years he was a student of M. Frémy, the future grandfather of Edmond Frémy. He then obtained a position with Antoine-François de Fourcroy at the École Polytechnique in Paris. In 1799 Courtois served as a pharmacist in military hospitals. In 1801 he returned to the École Polytechnique to work in the laboratory of Louis Jacques Thénard. [3]

Potassium nitrate chemical compound

Potassium nitrate is a chemical compound with the chemical formula KNO3. It is an ionic salt of potassium ions K+ and nitrate ions NO3, and is therefore an alkali metal nitrate.

French Revolution Revolution in France, 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

Auxerre Prefecture and commune in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, France

Auxerre is the capital of the Yonne department and the fourth-largest city in Burgundy. Auxerre's population today is about 39,000; the metropolitan area comprises roughly 92,000 inhabitants. Residents of Auxerre are referred to as Auxerrois.

In 1802, Courtois worked with Armand Séguin at the École Polytechnique on the study of opium. In conjunction with Séguin, Courtois isolated morphine, the first known alkaloid, from opium. Séguin presented his first memoir on opium to the French Institute in 1804. [4] L. G. Toraude adds a note at the end of the biography of Courtois:

Opium Dried latex obtained from the opium poppy

Opium is the dried latex obtained from the opium poppy. Approximately 12 percent of the opium latex is made up of the analgesic alkaloid morphine, which is processed chemically to produce heroin and other synthetic opioids for medicinal use and for illegal drug trade. The latex also contains the closely related opiates codeine and thebaine, and non-analgesic alkaloids such as papaverine and noscapine. The traditional, labor-intensive method of obtaining the latex is to scratch ("score") the immature seed pods (fruits) by hand; the latex leaks out and dries to a sticky yellowish residue that is later scraped off and dehydrated. The word "meconium" historically referred to related, weaker preparations made from other parts of the opium poppy or different species of poppies.

Morphine Pain medication of the opiate family

Morphine is a pain medication of the opiate family which is found naturally in a number of plants and animals. It acts directly on the central nervous system (CNS) to decrease the feeling of pain. It can be taken for both acute pain and chronic pain. It is frequently used for pain from myocardial infarction and during labor. It can be given by mouth, by injection into a muscle, by injection under the skin, intravenously, injection into the space around the spinal cord, or rectally. Maximum effect is reached after about 20 minutes when given intravenously and after 60 minutes when given by mouth, while duration of effect is 3–7 hours. Long-acting formulations also exist.

Alkaloid class of naturally occurring chemical compounds

Alkaloids are a class of naturally occurring organic compounds that mostly contain basic nitrogen atoms. This group also includes some related compounds with neutral and even weakly acidic properties. Some synthetic compounds of similar structure may also be termed alkaloids. In addition to carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, alkaloids may also contain oxygen, sulfur and, more rarely, other elements such as chlorine, bromine, and phosphorus.

Séguin's and Courtois' opium research came to an end at the École Polytechnique in 1804. Courtois then went to his father's business in Paris for making potassium nitrate. By 1805 his father's business was failing and he was put in debtors' prison until the end of 1807. Courtois managed the family business meanwhile until his father was released. No details are known of the demise of Courtois' father after his release. Courtois is recorded as a Parisian businessman in 1806 as a salpêtrier. In 1808 Courtois married the daughter of a Parisian hairdresser. Records show he continued to operate the family saltpeter factory until 1821, with the possible exception of years 1815, 1816, and 1817. [6]

By 1811 the war had made the government-controlled saltpeter business taper off since there was by then a shortage of wood ashes with which potassium nitrate was made. As an alternative, the needed potassium nitrate was derived from seaweed that was abundant on the Normandy and Brittany shores. The seaweed also had another, yet undiscovered, important chemical. One day towards the end of 1811 while Courtois was isolating sodium and potassium compounds from seaweed ash, he discovered iodine after he added sulfuric acid to the seaweed ash. [7] He was investigating corrosion of his copper vessels when he noticed a vapor given off. It was in the form of an unusual purple vapor. Humphry Davy later records,

Humphry Davy English chemist

Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet was a Cornish chemist and inventor, who is best remembered today for isolating, using electricity, a series of elements for the first time: potassium and sodium in 1807 and calcium, strontium, barium, magnesium and boron the following year, as well as discovering the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine. He also studied the forces involved in these separations, inventing the new field of electrochemistry. In 1799 Davy experimented with nitrous oxide and was astonished at how it made him laugh, so he nicknamed it "laughing gas", and wrote about its potential anaesthetic properties in relieving pain during surgery.

Later life

Courtois was acknowledged by Humphry Davy and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac as the true discoverer of iodine. He went into manufacturing high-quality iodine and its salts in 1822. In 1831 he was awarded 6,000 francs as part of the Montyon Prize by L'Academie royale des sciences for the medicinal value of this element. He struggled financially for the rest of his life and died September 27, 1838. He was 62 years old and had no assets left for his widow or son. [8] In the year of his death, the Journal de chimie médicale drily noted his passing under the heading Obituary as:

"Bernard Courtois, the discoverer of iodine, died at Paris the 27th of September, 1838, leaving his widow without fortune. If, on making this discovery, Courtois had taken out a certificate of invention, he would have realized a large estate." [9]


  1. "Bernard Courtois". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 9 March 2017.
  2. Swain, p. 103
  3. Swain, p. 104
  4. Swain, p. 105
  5. Swain, p. 106
  6. Swain, p. 107
  7. Swain, p. 108
  8. Swain, p. 109
  9. Journal de chimie médicale, de pharmacie et de toxicologie. 2. s.n. 1838. p. 6. Retrieved 9 November 2008. as translated by The American Journal of Pharmacy. 11. 1839. p. 168. Retrieved 9 November 2008.

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