History in Flasks

Glass flasks that once belonged to German chemist Heinrich Caro help tell the story of chemistry’s beginnings at USP

Original building housing the chemistry program at the USP campus on Alameda Glete, São Paulo, 1938

FFCL – USP yearbook, 1937-1938 Original building housing the chemistry program at the USP campus on Alameda Glete, São Paulo, 1938FFCL – USP yearbook, 1937-1938

In 1934, German chemist Heinrich Rheinboldt (1891-1955) arrived in Brazil with a mission to help implement the chemical sciences program at the former Faculty of Philosophy, Science and Languages (the FFCL, today’s FFLCH) of the recently founded University of São Paulo (USP). The nascent institution envisaged a strategy of finding competent European professionals willing to remain for some time in the capital city of the state of São Paulo to launch a teaching and research program in various fields of science. On his departure from Germany, Rheinboldt brought in his luggage glass flasks containing chemicals that had belonged to his grandfather, the chemist Heinrich Caro (1834-1910), considered a precursor of modern industrial chemistry. Rheinboldt, however, preserved his grandfather’s chemicals for reasons other than mere nostalgia. In fact, he was a “profound student of history,” writes Paschoal Senise (1917-2011), former professor emeritus at USP and Rheinboldt’s student when the program that formed the current Institute of Chemistry (IQ) began, in 1935.  To Henrique Eisi Toma, a professor at the IQ who maintains the vintage pieces in his USP laboratory, “the flasks recount some of the history of the chemical industry worldwide.” Toma goes on to say, “they also served as a historical reference for Rheinboldt to promote a significant change in Brazilian chemistry, through research and the employment of new methods and common techniques practiced in laboratories in Europe.”

Caro’s flasks, still contain their alizarin and methylene blue dyes

Henrique Eisi TomaCaro’s flasks, still contain their alizarin and methylene blue dyesHenrique Eisi Toma

Inside the little flasks, one finds samples of the very reagents and chemicals that made a mark on Caro’s life. Caro began his career at Berlin’s Friedrich Wilhelm University (founded in 1810, making it one of the oldest in the city), which changed its name in 1949 to Humboldt University of Berlin. In the 1850s, Caro discovered the world of business-based research after being introduced to the technique for printing calico (also known as chita), a type of cotton fabric produced using natural dyes.  Between 1895 and 1866, Caro lived in Manchester, England, where he worked in the textile industry developing new techniques for dying fabric with artificial colors.

Heinrich Caro (1834-1910): precursor of modern industrial chemistry

Wikimedia Commons Heinrich Caro (1834-1910): precursor of modern industrial chemistryWikimedia Commons

In their 2000 book, Carsten Reinhardt and Anthony Travis point out that Caro’s ability to overcome problems in the application of new dyes allowed him to both establish relationships with academic chemists in the UK and promote exchanges between English researchers and his colleagues in Germany. Caro was “a craftsman, businessman and scientist all in one,” as the authors say. After returning to Germany, Caro began working in the 1880s at Basf (Badische Anilin & Soda Fabrik)—then a small company of 166 employees—where he was responsible for introducing alizarin, a red fabric dye that he had synthesized artificially in the late 1860s.  In 1876, he synthesized methylene blue, a substance that went on to have numerous applications in medical research, particularly in the study of microorganisms. In 1882, for example, Nobel laureate Robert Koch announced his discovery of the tuberculosis bacillus using  methylene blue as a marker dye. According to Toma, “the synthesis of dyes practically did away with the practice of extracting dyes from plants, marking the beginning of the modern chemical industry;” and, because Caro was the first researcher to describe peroxysulphuric acid, the compound came to be known as “Caro’s acid,” used in the industrial production of disinfectants and other cleaning agents.

Heinrich Rheinboldt, in 1939, (at head of table) at a luncheon with German professors at the Brasserie Paulista restaurant in São Paulo

Origins of the IQ-USP, Paschoal Senise Heinrich Rheinboldt, in 1939, (at head of table) at a luncheon with German professors at the Brasserie Paulista restaurant in São PauloOrigins of the IQ-USP, Paschoal Senise

Historian and USP professor Shozo Motoyama tells us that Rheinboldt, unlike his grandfather and despite acknowledging the importance of basic research to the long-term advancement of industry, had no interest in industrial research. “Also,” Motoyoma explains, “when he arrived at USP, Rheinboldt introduced none of the cutting-edge chemistry that was in vogue at the time, unlike the Italian Gleb Wataghin in the Physics Department through his presentation of cosmic rays and other topics at the forefront of his field.” Still, it is through the portrayal of both Rheinboldt and Caro as innovators that Motoyama says he finds the common denominator between the two. “In the long run, Rheinboldt’s work in fields such as organic chemistry planted the seeds for the growth of Brazilian chemistry in various directions, like biochemistry, in which USP eventually excelled,” Motoyama concludes.