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By Dave DeWitt
[Author's Note: The year 2012 marks the Centennial Anniversary of the Scoville Organoleptic Test, so I decided to apply all my food history online research skills that I've honed over the past five years to create what is the first definitive—however brief—biographical essay on Scoville. Fortunately, the combination of Google Books, Google Scholar, and other online resources proved successful and at least now we know quite a bit more about Professor Scoville's professional life. His personal life remains shrouded in mystery.]
I seriously doubt that Wilbur Scoville ever imagined that he would be most remembered for his Scoville Organoleptic Test that was the first attempt ever to quantify the heat of chile peppers, in 1912. He probably had convinced himself that he would be most famous for authoring The Art of Compounding in 1895, which is now in its ninth edition, a facsimile, published in 2010. Although he was interested in chile peppers, he didn't write much about them, preferring to focus on even more bizarre chemicals like the cantharides in Spanish fly.
A pharmaceutical chemist, college professor, magazine editor, laboratory director, and author, Wilbur Lincoln Scoville was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1865. We know little about his early life except that his involvement with pharmacy began in 1881 when, at the age of fourteen, he worked at a drug store owned by E. Toucey in Bridgeport. This apparently influenced him greatly for in 1887, he moved to Boston to attend the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. He graduated in 1889 with a Ph.G. (“Graduate of Pharmacy”) and married Cora B. Upham in Wollaston, Massachusetts in 1891. They had two daughters together, Amy Augusta, born August 21, 1892 and Ruth Upham, born October 21, 1897. In 1892 he accepted the position of professor of pharmacy and applied pharmacy at his alma mater, where he taught until 1904. He also took on specialized journalism, becoming editor of the New England Druggist in 1894.
After just three years on the college faculty, when he was just thirty years old in 1895, his best-known work, The Art of Compounding, was published. The book was used as a standard pharmacological reference up until the 1960s. The subtitle of the book, A Text Book for Students and a Reference Book for Pharmacists at the Prescription Counter, gives us a clue as to why the book was so popular—there were two markets for it. I found a copy of this book in Google Books, and here are two notable quotes that I discovered. Scoville was one of the first, if not the first person to suggest in print that milk is an antidote for the heat of chiles. “Milk, as ordinarily obtained,” he wrote, “is seldom used except as a diluent [diluting agent]. In this capacity it serves well for covering the taste of sharp or acrid bodies as tinctures of capsicum, ginger, etc., and for many salts, chloral, etc.”