Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Ciocâlteu: Professor, Poet and Political victim

I have been using some FC Phenol reagent, which a mixture of acidic phosphomolybdate and phosphotungstate, in the lab yesterday to measure phenol content.  It provides a quick snapshot of the gross quantity of phenolic material in samples, as outlined in this elegant method provided by Dr Andrew Waterhouse from UC Davis. It is usually abbreviated to FC by staff and students as Folin- Ciocâlteu  reagent is a bit of a mouthful for English speakers.

FC reagent with its distinctive neon colouring
However I decided that I would like to find out more about the Ciocâlteu part of this reagent's name, which led me to the very interesting story of Vintilă Ciocâlteu.

I am going to start with an interesting fact that Ciocâlteu helped provide the method that has had arguably the single biggest impact on scientific literature for all time. This impact was through the work of Oliver Lowry and his team, who in 1951 published a paper "Protein Measurement with the Folin Phenol Reagent" in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. This paper and the methodology has been cited an incredible 248 682 times (as of today 1st Oct 2013), making it one of the most influential papers in modern science.  Almost a quarter million science teams have looked into this study, whch was initially made possible by the the work of Otto Folin, Wiley Glover Denis and Vintilă Ciocâlteu.

From such interesting contribution to chemistry, it is easy to follow the history of Vintilă Ciocâlteu the Romanian scientist behind this chemical, and what follows is a brief outline of his life, which I have adapted from this historical article

Born in Romania in 1890, he graduated as a physician in 1920. He did incredibly well with his studies an was awarded a Rockfellar scholarship to leave Romania and study in the United States at the Harvard Medical school. It was in 1925 he worked for Otto Folin, considered to be one of the founders of Biochemistry and spent many productive years in the lab, including the work on the eponymous reagent. 

Vintilă returned to Romania, where he was deeply involved in university life in Bucharest.  He gained his professorship, started new laboratories for biochemistry and eventually became Dean. Biochemistry wasn't his only passion and he was known in Romania as eminent Poet publishing two collections of poems and being widely involved in the literary scene.  

Of course the country of Romania was about to experience one its most turbulent phases in history. Initially with countries involvement in fascism, then its subsequent take over by Soviet state.  It was during the period of communism that Vintilă became under suspicion from the state as intellectual and a liberal.  This was compounded by the fact he ha received substantial training in capitalist America.  He was demoted from his post of Dean, while the authorities conducted a smear campaign to renounce his good works.  In 1947 he was summoned to the faculty senate to defend his cause.  He duly did so for two hours, presenting the importance of his career and discoveries to his peers. It was at the end of this political witch hunt that Vintilă succumbed to a massive stroke and he died on the senate floor to eternal shame of all the attending academics.

So after learning of this interesting story, I can't help think about the importance of science, politics, history and I now make it a point to tell my students about how this strange yellow/green liquid came into being. 

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