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12 October 2019

Ascanio Sobrero - chemist

Professor who discovered nitroglycerine


Ascanio Sobrero discovered nitroglycerine during an experiment in his laboratory at Turin University
Ascanio Sobrero discovered nitroglycerine during
an experiment in his laboratory at Turin University
The chemist Ascanio Sobrero, who discovered of the volatile compound that became known as nitroglycerine, was born on this day in 1812 in Casale Monferrato in Piedmont.

Nitroglycerine has a pharmaceutical use as a vasodilator, improving blood flow in the treatment of angina, but it is more widely known as the key ingredient in explosives such as dynamite and gelignite.

Its commercial potential was exploited not by Sobrero but by Alfred Nobel, the Swedish businessman and philanthropist who gave his name to the annually awarded Nobel Prizes.

Sobrero, aware of how much damage it could cause, had actually warned against nitroglycerine being used outside the laboratory.

Little is known about Sobrero’s early life, apart from his being born in Casale Monferrato, a town about 60km (37 miles) east of Turin.

He studied medicine in Turin and Paris and then chemistry at the University of Giessen in Germany, earning his doctorate in 1832. In 1845 he returned to the University of Turin, becoming a professor there.

Alfred Nobel, pictured at around the time he met Sobrero in Paris in 1850
Alfred Nobel, pictured at around the time he met
Sobrero in Paris in 1850
Sobrero had acquired some knowledge of explosives from the French chemist Théophile-Jules Pelouze, who had taught at the University of Turin while he was a student.

Around 1846 or 1847, during research, Sobrero experimented by adding glycerol to a mixture of concentrated nitric and sulfuric acids. The result was a colorless, oily liquid with a sweet, burning taste.

When he tried heating a drop in a test tube, it exploded. The fragments of glass scarred Sobrero’s face and hands. The liquid’s volatility frightened Sobrero so much that he told no one about it for more than a year. After he did finally announce his discovery, which he called pyroglycerine, he wrote to fellow chemists warning against its use, expanding on his misgivings in academic journals.

Nobel, whose family owned an armaments business in St Petersburg, had been, like Sobrero, a student at the University of Turin, albeit somewhat later.  They happened to meet in Paris in 1850.  On learning about Sobrero’s discovery, Nobel became interested in finding a way to control nitroglycerine’s explosive qualities.

It took him many years to achieve that ambition and there were mishaps along the way, not least in 1864, after the family had returned to Sweden from Russia, when an explosion at their factory in Heleneborg, Stockholm, killed five people, including Nobel's younger brother Emil. Undaunted, Nobel continued his work and in 1867 he obtained a patent as the inventor of dynamite. He went on to invent gelignite and ballistite, a predecessor of cordite.

The Nobel family business was still producing dynamite to Alfred's patented formula in the 1930s
The Nobel family business was still producing dynamite
to Alfred's patented formula in the 1930s
The inventions made Nobel’s fortune. He unfailingly acknowledged Sobrero as the man who had discovered nitroglycerine, although Sobrero sometimes claimed he was not given sufficient recognition.

At other times, by contrast, he gave the impression he would rather Nobel did not mention his name at all.  He was on record as saying: “When I think of all the victims killed during nitroglycerine explosions, and the terrible havoc that has been wreaked, which in all probability will continue to occur in the future, I am almost ashamed to admit to be its discoverer.”

Sobrero died in Turin in 1888, at the age of 75.  He is buried at the cemetery of Cavallermaggiore, about 40km (25 miles) south of Turin.

Piazza Mazzini in Casale Monferrato, which is named after the revolutionary hero Giuseppe Mazzini
Piazza Mazzini in Casale Monferrato, which is named
after the revolutionary hero Giuseppe Mazzini
Travel tip:

Situated on the south bank of the Po river, Casale Monferrato is a town of some 36,000 inhabitants based on a former Roman city, later turned into a major citadel by the Gonzaga family. The historic centre is itself centred on Piazza Mazzini, the site of the Roman forum. The square is dominated by an 1843 equestrian statue by Abbondio Sangiorgio of King Charles Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia.  To the east of the square is the Lombard Romanesque cathedral of Sant'Evasio, founded in 742 and rebuilt in the early 12th century, occupying the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter.  See also the castle on Piazza Castello, a fortress that probably dates from 1000, built to a quadrilateral plan with corner towers and a moat.

An internal quadrangle at the University of Turin, where Sobrero was a student and later a professor
An internal quadrangle at the University of Turin, where
Sobrero was a student and later a professor
Travel tip:

The University of Turin, where Sobrero studied and taught, is one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1406 by Prince Ludovico di Savoia. It consistently ranks among the top five universities in Italy and is an important centre for research. The university departments are spread around 13 facilities, with the main university buildings in Via Giuseppe Verdi, close to Turin’s famous Mole Antonelliana.

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