By Dave DeWitt
[Author’s Note: The year 2012 marks the Centennial Anniversary of the Scoville Organoleptic Test, so I decided to apply all my food history online research skills that I’ve honed over the past five years to create what is the first definitive—however brief—biographical essay on Scoville. Fortunately, the combination of Google Books, Google Scholar, and other online resources proved successful and at least now we know quite a bit more about Professor Scoville’s professional life. His personal life remains shrouded in mystery.]
I seriously doubt that Wilbur Scoville ever imagined that he would be most remembered for his Scoville Organoleptic Test that was the first attempt ever to quantify the heat of chile peppers, in 1912. He probably had convinced himself that he would be most famous for authoring The Art of Compounding in 1895, which is now in its ninth edition, a facsimile, published in 2010. Although he was interested in chile peppers, he didn’t write much about them, preferring to focus on even more bizarre chemicals like the cantharides in Spanish fly.
A pharmaceutical chemist, college professor, magazine editor, laboratory director, and author, Wilbur Lincoln Scoville was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1865. We know little about his early life except that his involvement with pharmacy began in 1881 when, at the age of fourteen, he worked at a drug store owned by E. Toucey in Bridgeport. This apparently influenced him greatly for in 1887, he moved to Boston to attend the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. He graduated in 1889 with a Ph.G. (“Graduate of Pharmacy”) and married Cora B. Upham in Wollaston, Massachusetts in 1891. They had two daughters together, Amy Augusta, born August 21, 1892 and Ruth Upham, born October 21, 1897. In 1892 he accepted the position of professor of pharmacy and applied pharmacy at his alma mater, where he taught until 1904. He also took on specialized journalism, becoming editor of the New England Druggist in 1894.
After just three years on the college faculty, when he was just thirty years old in 1895, his best-known work, The Art of Compounding, was published. The book was used as a standard pharmacological reference up until the 1960s. The subtitle of the book, A Text Book for Students and a Reference Book for Pharmacists at the Prescription Counter, gives us a clue as to why the book was so popular—there were two markets for it. I found a copy of this book in Google Books, and here are two notable quotes that I discovered. Scoville was one of the first, if not the first person to suggest in print that milk is an antidote for the heat of chiles. “Milk, as ordinarily obtained,” he wrote, “is seldom used except as a diluent [diluting agent]. In this capacity it serves well for covering the taste of sharp or acrid bodies as tinctures of capsicum, ginger, etc., and for many salts, chloral, etc.”
And he was insightful into the process of drug addiction as well as the addicts themselves. “The renewal of prescriptions is also a question for individual judgment,” he wrote. “In the majority of cases renewals are expected and granted, on demand, but occasions sometimes arise where a single vial-full is all that is needed or advisable. The notion that a medicine “can do no harm, if it does no good,” is in most cases erroneous, sometimes very decidedly so.” Then Scoville gets down to the real nitty-gritty: “Moreover, the pharmacist should remember that such conditions as are found in opium or cocaine habitues (not to say drunkards), often originate in the use of a prescription containing one of these drugs in some form, originally prescribed for a legitimate purpose, but renewed from time to time until the habit is established.” Early Oxycontin, anyone?
In 1897, he resigned as editor of the New England Druggist and the following year accepted the position of pharmacy editor of The Spatula, the journal-cum-magazine of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. It was called “The Illustrated Monthly Publication for Druggists,” and carried ads for Clifford’s Moustache Wax, Parke, Davis & Company’s Pure, Uncolored Insect Powder, and the Clean Font Modern Nursing Bottle, among others for industry products like drug bottles. The magazine was a chatty, informative publication featuring articles about new products, notable druggists, drug laws, and a bit of gossip. During his time there and beyond, from 1900 to 1910, Scoville was on the committee to revise the U.S. Pharmacopoeia and he chaired that committee during his final year on it. He also worked on revising the National Formulary and was a staunch advocate of pharmacy standards.
Scoville had a lively, inquisitive mind and did studies on the extracts of witch hazel and cinchona, and he wrote an article entitled “Some Observations on Glycerin Suppositories.” In 1903, his article “Standards for Flavor Extracts” was published in the American Journal of Pharmacy and it proved that Scoville was part of the same debates we have today over natural versus artificial flavors. A review of his article appeared in the Journal of the American Chemical Society and the reviewer had this to say about it: “Professor Scoville points out that flavoring extracts are not all used for the same purposes, that, of those who use them, few are good judges of quality. He who ‘lives to eat,’ the epicure, demands the very best of flavoring, not in the so-called ‘extracts’ only, but in the flavoring and seasoning of all of his dishes. He who ‘eats to live,’ the non-epicure, he whose sense of taste has not been carefully educated, and is not infallible, will allow to pass unnoticed a heavy or even a coarse flavor, or an inharmonius flavoring of the various dishes composing his meal.” At this point in his article, Scoville discussed a situation that modern home bakers still face: “One will insist upon having a vanilla extract made from the best Mexican beans, while the other will be satisfied with an extract prepared from Tahiti or Vanillon beans, or from some combination of these with vanillin, tonka, or cumarin. The difference between these flavoring agents is not one of wholesomeness, but one of taste. If the public finds that the distinction between vanilla and vanillin is too subtile for the average discrimination, and that vanillin holds its flavor better in cooking, why should the epicure object to the non-epicure enjoying it?'”
In 1904, Scoville resigned from the college, and Benjamin Lillard, editor of The Practical Druggist, had this to say about it: “Professor Wilbur L. Scoville, who has been known for many years as a prominent professor in the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, has resigned his position and accepted a berth with a large firm of Boston retailers owning four stores. It is unfortunate that the independent colleges are not in position to pay larger salaries and keep men of Professor Scoville’s ability.” Scoville was director of the Jaynes Analytical Laboratory, just purchased by the Riker drug stores, where for $2.50 per patient, his staff performed urine analyses. And he was continuing to publish articles in the American Journal of Pharmacy, like “Aromatic Elixir” in the April, 1904 issue.
But commercial laboratory work didn’t last long. Scoville was recruited by one of The Spatula’s advertisers, Parke, Davis & Company in 1907 and moved his family from Boston to Detroit. The Bulletin of Pharmacy, published in Detroit, had this to say about Scoville’s hire: “In a great house like Parke, Davis & Company, Professor Scoville will have ample opportunity to utilize his varied abilities to the utmost.” And one of those abilities—his work with Heet, a muscle salve manufactured by the company he had just joined—would make him famous.
Heet was made with chile peppers and the problem was standardizing the type and the amount of chiles that needed to be added to the other ingredients of Heet to standardize the formulation and avoid burning the skin of the person using it. Scoville was assigned to solve this problem, which took a few years due to his other duties. In the earliest reference to his work on chiles, the American Journal of Pharmacy noted in 1911: “Wilbur L. Scoville presented a Note on Capsicum, showing the great variation in the strength of capsicum, and suggesting the possibility of the pungency of this drug being used as a simple test for quality. This paper elicited some discussion in the course of which it was pointed out that the physiological test for capsicum was infinitely more delicate and more reliable than the similar test that has been proposed for use in connection with aconite.”
At the American Pharmaceutical Association annual meeting in Denver in 1912, Scoville presented a paper on his solution to the Heet problem: the Scoville Organoleptic Test. Albert Brown Lyons, writing in Practical Standardization by Chemical Assay of Organic Drugs and Galenicals (1920), explains. “It is quite possible to form a reasonably ‘exact judgment’ of the ‘strength’ of a sample of the drug [capsaicin] by the simple expedient of testing its pungency. W. L. Scoville proposes the following practical method. Macerate 0.1 gm. of ground capsicum overnight in 100 mils of alcohol; shake well and filter. Add this tincture to sweetened water (10% sugar) in such proportion that a distinct but weak pungency is perceptible to the tongue or throat. According to Scoville official capsicum will respond to this test in a dilution of 1 : 50,000. He found the Mombassa chilles to test from 1 : 50,000 to 1 : 100,000; Zanzibar chillies, 1 : 40,000 to 1 : 45,000; Japan chillies 1 : 20,000 to 1 : 30,000. Nelson found that a single drop of a solution of capsaicin in alcohol 1 : 1,000,000, applied to the tip of the tongue produced a distinct impression of warmth.”
“Organoleptic” means using the sense organs for taste, color, aroma, and feel to evaluate a food or drug and Scoville’s worked because the flavor was not important, just the perceived pungency. Scoville used a panel of tasters who kept sampling the mixture of chiles and sugar water until the pungency was gone. At that point the amount of dilution, such as one to fifty thousand, made gave the chile a heat level of 50,000 SHU, or Scoville Heat Units. Of course today, this tedious, expensive, and subjective test has been replaced by chromatography, but in 1912, this was breakthrough technology. As a result, Scoville’s career blossomed.
In 1913, Scoville was elected second vice-chairman of the American Pharmaceutical Association and read his paper “Tincture of Cantharides and its Assay” at the annual meeting. Years later, he would be nominated as president of the association but withdrew his name because he was too busy working on revising the National Formulary. In 1918, his book Extracts and Perfumes was published. It was a pharmacology study containing hundreds of formulations. The book, published in hardcover, sold for one dollar. In 1922, Scoville won the Ebert Prize from the American Pharmaceutical Association; the prize, established in 1873, is the oldest pharmacy award in existence in the United States and is awarded to the best essay or written communication containing an original investigation of a medicinal substance in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences. In 1929 he received the Remington Honor Medal, the American Pharmaceutical Association’s top award “to recognize distinguished service on behalf of American pharmacy during the preceding years, culminating in the past year, or during a long period of outstanding activity or fruitful achievement.” Scoville also received an honorary Doctor of Science from Columbia University the same year.
At the age of 69, Scoville retired from Parke, Davis in 1934. The company had this to say about him, probably written by Frank G. Ryan, the president, writing in Modern Pharmacy but covered in the Journal of the South Carolina Medical Association: “Three or four years ago, in the gradual development of our scientific staff, we secured the services of Professor Wilbur L. Scoville, a pharmacist well known to the country and a man preeminent in the field of what has been termed pharmaceutical elegance. Professor Scoville may well be considered an artist in questions concerning odor, flavor and appearance of galenicals. The first task assigned to Professor Scoville was to go systematically and patiently through our entire line of elixirs—regardless of what other workers had done before him, and regardless of what changes were under consideration at the time. He was given carte blanche to go ahead and suggest any modification and improvements which seemed to him necessary.”
Wilbur Lincoln Scoville died in Detroit in 1942 at the age of 77.
Anon. “Review of Standards of Flavoring Extracts, by Wilbur Scoville.” “Pharmaceutical Chemistry,”
Journal of the American Chemical Society, Vol. 25 (1903), 570.
Anon. “Professor Scoville Joins Parke, Davis and Company.” Bulletin of Pharmacy, Vol. 21. Detroit: E.G. Swift, 1907, 496.
Anon. “Westward a Star of Pharmacy Takes His Way.” The Druggists Circular, Vol 51 (December). New York: The Circular, 1907, 799.
Anon. “Elixirs Deluxe.” Journal of the South Carolina Medical Association. Volume 7 (Feb., 1911), 73-74.
Anon. “Section on Scientific Papers.” American Journal of Pharmacy, Vol. 83 (1911), 440.
Anon. “Minutes of the Section of Scientific Papers.” Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association, 1, 1912, 1204.
Brainard, Homer Worthington. A Survey of the Scovils or Scovills in England and America: Seven Hundred Years of History and Genealogy. Privately Printed, 1915.
Lillard, Benjamin. Practical Druggist and Pharmaceutical Review of Reviews, Volumes 13-16. Lillard & Co., 1904.
Lyons, Albert Brown. Practical Standardization by Chemical Assay of Organic Drugs and Galenicals. Detroit: Nelson, Baker, 1920, 238.
Marquis, Albert Nelson. Who’s Who in New England, Vol. 1. A.N. Marquis, 1909.
Scoville, Wilbur L. The Art of Compounding. Philadelphia: P. Blakiston, Son, 1895.
Scoville, Wilbur L. “Tincture of Cantharides and its Assay.” Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association, 2, 1913, 18-22.
Scoville, Wilbur L. “Tincture of Cantharides.” National Druggist, Vol. 48, February, 1918, 57.
Worthen, Dennis B. “How Hot is Hot? Scoville’s Test for Heat of Peppers Marked an Early success for Pharmacist Research.” Pharmacy Practice News, Vol. 36:08, August, 2009, online at http://www.pharmacypracticenews.com/ViewArticle.aspx?d=Pharmacy+Heritage&d_id=206&i=August+2009&i_id=553&a_id=13683
NNDB, the Notable Names Database.
Wilbur Lincoln Scoville on Facebook.