The year was 1965 and President Lyndon B. Johnson had just proclaimed his “Great Society” during the January 4th State of the Union Address. That same year, chemist James M. Schlatter was working for G.D. Searle & Company, a current subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. At the time, Schlatter was on a team that was tasked with assessing an anti-ulcer drug candidate. During the synthesis of a tetrapeptide of the hormone gastrin, Schlatter made a goof. Little did he know that this goof was about to make the world a whole lot sweeter. While conducting his experiment, Schattler had accidentally produced aspartame as an intermediate step. When he went to lift a piece of paper (probably to see where he went wrong) he accidentally licked his finger. If you remember from high school or college chemistry lab, this is something you’re never supposed to do–mostly for fear of becoming a liability (and to try and avoid injury or untimely death). Also, why wasn’t he wearing any gloves?! Maybe in 1965 there wasn’t as many lab safety regulations, but in this particular instance it was actually going to be beneficial. After licking his finger, Schattler noticed the sweet taste of the compound and after years of safety testing (and disproving that this “miracle” sweetener caused brain cancer), the rest is history. You can thank James M. Schlatter’s mistake the next time you put a little NutraSweet or Equal in your coffee.
There has been controversy surrounding Aspartame, read about that here:
The Truth About Aspartame, Live Science
Aspartame Angst, First Science
Does Aspartame Cause Cancer?, American Cancer Society
Sources/Where to head to learn more:
The History of Aspartame, Harvard Library
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