Angina, Nitroglycerin & Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel is one of the most respected names in science, and his legacy is honoured today when the best contributions for various fields of science are recognized and awarded with the Nobel prizes. You might also know him as an inventor par excellence, chemist with an expertise in the field of explosives and a generous philanthropist. Other than the invention of dynamite, he held 355 different patents to his name. One of the main components Alfred Nobel used in Dynamite is Nitroglycerin. This is the same compound we discussed in one of the previous articles as a medicine for chest pain. Let us see how Nitroglyerin, Alfred Nobel and chest pain have in common.

As one of the most prized scientists of the 19th century, Alfred Nobel, is protagonist of our discussion today. As a pioneer in the field of controlled explosives, Alfred Nobel spent most of his time in the field, trying to understand how different formulations worked.

Nobel, as a young man, studied with the Russian chemist Nokolai Zinin and he met Ascanio Sobrero in Paris. By then Sobrero had invented nitroglyerin and Nobel became intrigued to find out a way to control and use it as a usable explosive for commercial purposes. Due to his chance to work with many inventors and chemists from an early age, he was able to hone his skills and soon was filing patents for various inventions like a gas meter, ways to prepare gunpowder, detonator, blasting cap among others.

Being on the road most of the time, managing many companies across continents, he was not so happy in his personal life and stayed single after few rebuffed relationships. He suffered from depression, breathing problems and severe pain due to ‘angina’.

British physician, Lauder Brunton, the father of modern pharmacology, discovered that nitroglycerine was helpful in relieving pains due to angina pectoris. As soon as the benefits came to be known, this was prescribed to Alfred Nobel. In his handwritten letter, he notes that it’s ironic that he is prescribed nitroglycerine for his pain. Though Alfred Nobel was prone to acute pain due to angina, he refused the treatment using nitroglycerine.

He wrote in a letter to his friend, Ragnar Sohlman, “My heart trouble will keep me here in Paris for another few days at least, until my doctors are in complete agreement about my immediate treatment. Isn’t it the irony of fate that I have been prescribed N/G 1, to be taken internally! They call it Trinitrin, so as not to scare the chemist and the public.”

The Legacy of Alfred Nobel,” by R. Sohlman, The Bodley Head Ltd, London, 1983.

Did you know that the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1998 was awarded to the research that explained how nitroglycerine worked to help reduce the pain of the heart muscle? If you must know, nitroglycerine reacts by releasing nitric oxide, a common gas that when released in the endothelial cell layer lining the interior surface of blood vessels. Here it smoothens the muscle cell layer thereby helping the myofilaments relax. The now relaxed blood vessel widens and allows more blood to pass carrying more oxygen to the heart muscle.

Nobel was an avid reader all his life and left behind a large collection of books in his library. Towards the end of his life, Nobel fell in love with writing, penned a tragedy and some poems. What do you think about the life of Alfred Nobel?


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