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Wednesday, 25 May 2005 - 3:05 PM
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This presentation is part of: Celebrating Chemists and Chemistry, NJ and Beyond!

Plumbago, Bamboo, and Goldenrod - Thomas Edison and God's Almighty Warehouse

Kevin Olsen, Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ

Thomas Edison (1847-1931) has long been recognized as America's most famous inventor. His 1,093 patents ranged from stock tickers to cement houses. Historians generally agree that his greatest single invention was the modern research laboratory where multidisciplinary teams worked on complex technological problems.

Edison believed that when using a substance, it was important to be fully cognizant of its chemical and physical properties. His experimental approach often included testing thousands of different substances to find the one best suited for an application. In order to have a diverse stock of materials, he created stockrooms that were the precursor of modern compound libraries. Although it seemed a random process, Edison's knowledge of chemistry and extensive library research often provided a valid starting point.

As famous as this approach became, it seems to have exerted little influence on twentieth century drug discovery which itself uses a very similar trial and error methodology. Paul Ehrlich is rightfully recognized as the father of compound screening for medical research.

Edison's absence from pharmacological history seems largely to have been the result of the perception that he lacked a theoretical understanding of the systems he was studying. The word “Edisonian” is used to describe trail and error research undertaken without theoretical understanding. Edison's Myth of the down to earth, practical inventor who had little time for academic theory has denied Edison his rightful place in the history of modern science.


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