This week in science history: Margarine inventor’s fame spreads


Chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès invented many things, but today is remembered for only one. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


Margarine was periodically banned, taxed and reviled. Here, in 1949, Mrs J.C. Alicoate of Miami, and Mrs. Arthur Hebb, Jr. of Baltimore, protest against anti-marg policies in Washington DC.
Margarine was periodically banned, taxed and reviled. Here, in 1949, Mrs J.C. Alicoate of Miami, and Mrs. Arthur Hebb, Jr. of Baltimore, protest against anti-marg policies in Washington DC.
Bettmann / Getty Images

French scientist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès died on May 31, 1880. And yes, he is recognised as the inventor of margarine, but he was also a resourceful chemist with a range of useful discoveries to his name.

An article published in the Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society says Mouriès, who born October 24, 1817, in southern France, had early success improving upon Copahin, a common remedy at the time for syphilis. He refined the drug using nitric acid, which eliminated side effects, and was awarded a prize for this achievement.

Around 1850, he added his mother’s maiden name to his own, and became known as Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, except in official documents.

Other early patents granted to him included the invention of effervescent tablets, refinements in paper- and sugar-making, and the use of egg yolks for the tanning of leather.

In the early 1850s he began researching foods. He found that some species of animals have more calcium phosphate in their blood, and from this he developed and marketed a “health food” chocolate with added calcium phosphate and protein.

His next big project was to study bread-making, coming up with a technique that yielded 14% more product from the same amount of raw materials. He lectured on his process in Berlin, Brussels and Paris, and was awarded two gold medals for it. Napoleon III gave him the Legion of Honour.

By 1867, Mouriès had turned to dairy products. France had a butter shortage, and there was also a desire to produce a table fat for the French navy that would not quickly turn rancid.

Napoleon III offered a prize for anyone who could produce a butter substitute. In 1869, Mouriès developed and patented a process for churning beef tallow with milk to create an acceptable alternative, thereby winning the Emperor’s prize.

Mouriès called it oleomargarine – from the Latin oleum, meaning beef fat, and the Greek margarites, meaning pearl, because of the animal fat that formed pearly drops.

In her 1930 book Margarine as a Butter Substitute, Katherine Snodgrass details the Mouriès process, as described in his British patent from 1869.

“A fatty body identical in chemical composition with butter is obtained from fresh suet by crushing it between rollers under a stream of water, further washing it and then digesting it with agricultural gastric juice,” she writes.

“The fat is extracted, melted, passed through a sieve and poured into boxes to set, after which it is cut into pieces, which are wrapped in cloths and pressed between hot plates. A fatty body is expressed and may be agitated in a closed vessel, cooled, cut up, bleached with acid and washed with water.

“This purified fat is mixed at animal heat (104°F) with water containing small quantities of bicarbonate of soda, casein of cold milk and mammary tissues along with yellow colouring matter. This is digested, allowed to settle, decanted and cooled and yields a preserved butter.”

Mouriès eventually died of liver failure. Only his hometown newspaper recorded his passing.

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. http://lipidlibrary.aocs.org/History/content.cfm?ItemNumber=39276
  2. http://www.cyberlipid.org/glycer/glyc0010.htm
  3. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1231558?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
  4. http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/13/the-butter-wars-when-margarine-was-pink/
  5. https://www.amazon.com/Margarine-substitute-Stanford-university-institute/dp/B00085ARFU
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