Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The ‘Self-Grown’ Pictures of Dr. F.F. Runge

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge (1795-1867) was a German chemist who spent much of his early career analyzing poisonous substances derived from plants. In addition to identifying the effects of belladonna, "Dr. Poison," as he was called, also identified the active substances in caffeine and quinine. His work with “self-grown” images is considered a precursor of chromatography.

The Beinecke Library at Yale has a rare copy of Das Od als Bildungstrieb der Stoffe : Veranschaulicht in selbststandig gewachsenen Bildern, or “The Driving Force of Formation of Substances,Visualized by Self-Grown Pictures.” It is one of a number of books Runge wrote about the chemistry of color. The exquisite, geode-like stains Runge presents, are the result of a liquid compound being dropped onto filter paper. He found that the capillary force of filter paper will separate a compound into its components, leaving behind a visual record of its makeup. The images in the books are actual samples of stained filter paper pasted onto the page. To prove that the staining from each specific compound was unique to that compound, and repeatable, Runge offered duplicate samples on many pages. (Source)


  1. Fascinating and beautiful, and always a pleasure to see how harmoniously science and art used to co-exist and feed off each other before the 20th century.

  2. Thanks for commenting, d.ash. You are so right about the art-science continuum of yesteryear. In fact, for Runge, there was a mystical component as well, which, I believe caused scientists of his time to categorize his work as “art.” Those scientists, always classifying. --LE


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