The man who founded John Hopkins University’s Chemistry department, where they discovered the artificial sweetener saccharin, was born today in 1846. Now WE know em


Ira Remsen was born February 10, 1846, in New York City.

Even though his passion was chemistry, Ira graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1867 to please his parents.

Once he graduated, he left for Germany to study chemistry.

Ira earned his Ph.D. from the University of Göttingen in 1870.

Then finally, Ira was able to follow his dream and research pure chemistry at the University of Tübingen for five years.

In 1875, Ira returned to the United States and became a professor at Williams College.

Ira then wrote his popular book “Theoretical Chemistry.”

This book and his reputation brought Ira to the attention of Daniel Coit Gilman who invited him to become one of the original faculty of John Hopkins University.


John Hopkins University

Ira accepted Gilman’s offer in 1878, founding the department of chemistry where he put in his own laboratory.

Then that same year, the greatest discovery of his career happened quite by accident.


Reproduction of Ira Remsen's chemistry lab at Johns Hopkins

Reproduction of Ira Remsen’s chemistry lab at Johns Hopkins



In 1878, Ira had a lab assistant named Constantin Fahlberg. Ira and Constantin were both working on coal tar derivatives in Ira’s lab at John Hopkins University.

One version of the story is that when Fahlberg noticed a sweet taste on his hand one evening, he made the connection that this was due to a compound he had been working on that day.

The other version of this story is that each evening Ira Remsen ate rolls at dinner after his long days in the lab researching coal tar derivatives. Ira noticed that the rolls tasted initially sweet but then became bitter.

Since Ira’s wife tasted nothing strange about the rolls, Ira realized that the bitter taste was due to a chemical from his lab lingering on his fingers.

Ira claims that the next day, he tasted the chemicals that they had been working on the previous day.

Ira claimed he discovered that the cause of the bitterness was the oxidation of o-toluenesulfonamide.

Constantin Fahlberg claimed that he made the discovery when he noticed a sweet taste on his had one evening and connected this with the compound that he had been working on that day.

The only thing for certain is that they both published articles on benzoic sulfimide in 1879 and 1880.

They each claim they named the substance Saccharin, derived from the word saccharine, meaning, relating to, or resembling that of sugar.



Ira had little interest in the practical application of this discovery, preferring research for the sake of advancing learning.

Constantin Fahlberg left John Hopkins University and was working on his own in New York City by 1884, and realized the commercial potential of Saccharin.

Fahlberg applied for, and was awarded, patents on methods of producing Saccharin.

At first, Ira Remsen did not object to his colleague’s actions, but he became angry when Fahlberg tried to alter the account of the discovery. Fahlberg first omitted mention of Remsen as a participant in the research, then tried to make it appear that he, not Remsen, had been the senior investigator.

As a result, Fahlberg would soon grow wealthy, while Ira merely grew irate.

Later, Ira became angry, believing that he deserved credit for substances discovered and produced in his laboratory.

On this matter, Ira commented,

“Fahlberg is a scoundrel. It nauseates me to hear my name mentioned in the same breath with him.”


In 1901, Ira Remsen was appointed president of Johns Hopkins, where he proceeded to found the School of Engineering and helped establish John Hopkins as a research university.

Ira introduced many of the German laboratory techniques he had learned and wrote several important chemistry textbooks.

In 1912, Ira stepped down as president and retired to Carmel, California.

In 1923, Ira was awarded the Priestley medal.

Ira Remsen died on March 4, 1927.



After Ira’s death the new chemistry building was named after him at Johns Hopkins. His ashes are located behind a plaque in Remsen Hall; he is the only person buried on campus. According to legend, undergraduates who rub the plaque the night before their chemistry exam will do well.

His Baltimore house was added to the National Register of Historic Places and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975.

The research carried out in Remsen’s laboratories, although of less lasting import than his teaching, was significant in its time. These studies derived mostly from his earlier work and centered on the reactions of derivatives of substituted benzenes.

History tends to side with Constantin Fahlberg when it comes to Saccharin.

However, Ira was noted for his clear and straightforward teaching style and for his devotion to his students. Under his tutelage, the first great generation of American academic chemists was established across the country.

Now WE know em



Saccharin’s Bad Rap

Although saccharin was commercialized not long after its discovery, it was not until the sugar shortages of World War I that its use became widespread.

Saccharin’s popularity further increased during the 1960s and 1970s among dieters, since saccharin is a calorie-free sweetener.

Saccharin is believed to be an important discovery, especially for diabetics, as it goes directly through the human digestive system without being digested.

For decades, Saccharin had a bad reputation, however on December 14, 2010, the EPA stated that saccharin was no longer considered a potential hazard to human health.

Today, in the United States, Saccharin is often found in restaurants in pink packets; the most popular brand is “Sweet’N Low“.

Saccharin is used to sweeten products such as drinks, candies, cookies, medicines, and toothpaste.



One response to “The man who founded John Hopkins University’s Chemistry department, where they discovered the artificial sweetener saccharin, was born today in 1846. Now WE know em

  1. Pingback: Thomas Lovejoy featured at Johns Hopkins University Krieger School of Arts & Sciences ceremonies | Tim·

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