The name Raphael Mechoulam has gained prominence in the last several years, as he is the man who first isolated delta-9 THC. Not as many people are familiar with the scientist Roger Adams, though he was just as important in the early research on cannabis. The story of Roger Adams and the unexpected discovery of CBD marks one of the biggest milestones in today’s cannabis research. Here’s how it happened.
Not everyone knows the name Roger Adams, or that he made the unexpected discovery of CBD. Just like not everyone knows what delta-8 THC is, or how it relates to marijuana. Both are very important. Roger Adams made some of the biggest discoveries related to identifying cannabinoids; and delta-8 THC represents what that research provided – an alternate form of THC which causes less psychoactive high, less anxiety, and less cloudy head. We support cannabis research, and all the great stuff that comes out of it. Check out our deals for delta-9 THC, delta-8 THC, and for a range of other minor cannabinoids like THCV, THCP, delta 10, HHC, THC-O and more, to experience the outcome of decades of research!
Who is this Roger Adams?
Born in 1889, Roger Adams was an organic chemist from Boston, Massachusetts. Adams is from the same family as former presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and is a direct descendent of John Adam’s grandfather. Adams attended Harvard University starting in 1903, and completed his undergraduate degree in three years. He went on to earn his PhD at Radcliffe College in 1912. He was such an outstanding student that he won the Parker Traveling Scholarship for 1912-1913, and used the money to work in laboratories in and around Berlin for that time period.
In 1913, Adams returned to the US, and began working as a research assistant, teaching organic chemistry at both Harvard and Radcliffe. He left the world of Harvard in 1916, upon accepting an assistant professor position at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He remained at this university for 56 years. Adams spent the majority of this time as the department head for chemistry, taking the role from his predecessor William A. Noyes.
While working in this position, Adams accomplished several things. Together with students he created the Adam’s Catalyst, something used in hydrogenation reactions along with an apparatus for using this catalyst. He also elucidated the composition of complex vegetable oils and plant alkaloids. In the late 1930’s he began research into the cannabis plant and isolated the cannabinoids CBN and CBD, synthesized both, found delta-9 THC, and did a partial synthesis of that as well. He also synthesized analogues of these compounds. In this way, Roger Adams was the first guy to create a synthetic cannabinoid.
Thomas Easterfield & Robert S. Cahn, the guys before Roger Adams
Before getting into Roger Adams, and his discovery of CBD, there’re two other guys who need to be mentioned, Thomas Easterfield and Robert S. Cahn. As science builds on itself over time, Easterfield’s and Cahn’s discoveries were what led into some of the bigger milestones in cannabis research. It all started with the desire to find what ended up being THC. In the search for the compound that caused intoxication, cannabis was first distilled into a ‘red oil’, which was the first form of it to be studied in modern times.
This red oil was discovered in the late 1800s by Doctor Thomas Hill Easterfield, a member of the Cambridge Group, who had been lecturing at Cambridge University at that time. In the late 1800s when he wrote about the red oil, he called ‘cannabinol’ a narcotic, which it was later clarified not to be by Cahn. At that time cannabinol was the main focus of the cannabis plant, first thought to be the intoxicating factor, but there was intense confusion around it.
Both the red oil, and the compound within, were given the name cannabinol. Though deeper questions were not answered at that time, cannabinol was the first cannabinoid to be isolated, and this was done by Easterfield.
All research was stopped, and Easterfield moved to New Zealand, following a couple incidents. One that involved the death of two collaborators in a lab accident, and one that involved the voluntary ingestion of a large dose of cannabinol by another collaborator, which led to the guy being out of his mind, and wondering around the lab as it caught fire around him. The fire was put out, and he returned to normal, but the news of these accidents was exaggerated and used in smear campaigns against cannabis, with claims that it was causing death and injury to researchers. This stymied research at the time, and it took about three decades for the next major breakthrough, brought by Robert Cahn.
In the 1930s, Doctor Robert S. Cahn began studying the structure and bioactivity of CBN. Cahn called the red oil ‘crude cannabinol’. He used the name ‘cannabinol’ specifically for the pure compound within the oil which he was able to show did not have intoxicating properties, ending the idea that CBN was the psychoactive constituent of the plant. Cahn was able to map the structure of CBN, using the relative position of specific atoms and groups of atoms within the compound, but there were still several questions that didn’t get ironed out until Roger Adams and Alexander Todd began studying the compounds later that decade.
Roger Adams and the unexpected discovery of CBD
The whole idea with the research previous to Adams, was to locate the intoxicating element of cannabis, which was first thought to be cannabinol. Roger Adams began his research into cannabis after the Marihuana Tax Act was passed in 1937, meaning he couldn’t legally study the plant anymore, and had to receive authorization to do so. Prior to getting into cannabis research, Adams had been studying biphenyls and their atropisomerism. What this means is less important for our purposes, than the understanding that cannabinol is a biphenyl derivative, meaning Adams was already well versed in compounds similar to cannabinol, and this made him a great choice to study it.
It was actually the Bureau of Narcotics of the US Treasury Department which requested Adams do the research into cannabinol, in an effort to locate and isolate the intoxicating element. Funny enough, it was the general misunderstanding about cannabis at the time, that led to the confused discovery of CBD.
You see, cannabis was not well understood, and instead of providing Adams with high-THC cannabis (marijuana), he was provided with high-CBD cannabis (hemp). Using hemp to study THC is much harder, as there is considerably less of it there. THCA is the precursor to CBN, and it only exists in small amounts in hemp, whereas CBDA is more prevalent, but is the precursor to CBD, not CBN. This made it very difficult for Adams to isolate the already-known-about CBN from the plant.
It was this attempt to isolate CBN from the red oil which led Adams to try different methods of isolation. He could not get a direct crystallization of CBN by acetylation (a specific kind of chemical reaction). He instead tried other reagents, eventually finding himself with a previously unidentified crystalline substance. This substance ended up being CBD. In order to isolate the CBN, Adams had to go through a process of purification from the crystalline CBD, which means Adams had to identify a new cannabinoid, in order to isolate the one already found.
What about Alexander Todd?
The story of the discovery of CBD, is twofold. Though Roger Adams is the one who gets credit, there was a parallel discovery around the same time, and that was made by British chemist Doctor Alexander Todd. The two scientists were rather competitive in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, each publishing their discoveries as they came across them, and likely spurring each other on to work harder and do more.
There was even some contention between them as they both raced to find the same thing – THC, and though neither did find it, they did identify the other major component of the plant. In later years they actually became friends and formed a partnership, but I expect the competitive nature between them is what sped up the discoveries they made.
Anyway, Alexander Todd is more notorious for his winning of a Nobel prize for his work with nucleotides, but before this happened, he got into studying cannabis at the relatively young age of 32. He worked out of the University of Manchester with a very small research group, but was still able to isolate CBD from a sample of Indian hash. The hash had to be carefully gotten to him, as cannabis was illegal in Britain starting in 1928. When he published his paper in 1940, Todd was required to register at the Home Office for holding 2.5kg of hash.
Part of what was interesting about the rivalry between Todd and Adams, is that they both made great discoveries, but were a generation apart in age and training, and used different means to make their discoveries. Todd identified CBD in an entirely different way, which was more in line with the principals of Cahn. Todd found he could take all the CBN out of the red oil using a type of chloride, and that in so doing, he could isolate a different cannabinoid – CBD.
In terms of who was technically first to make the discovery of CBD, it’s hard to say. In terms of published work, Todd had his first discoveries published in the journal Nature on March 2nd, 1940, but without any detail. Later that month, he published a full, detailed, version in the Journal of Chemical Society. On the other hand, Adams submit his first notes about CBD to the Journal of America Chemical Society in 1939, technically giving him the win, though the discoveries were essentially made in tandem.
These two scientists exemplify the often meandering line it takes to get from point A to point B in scientific research. And though neither reached the goal of finding the intoxicating agent, in attempting to do it, they both became pioneers in the world of cannabis research. Together, yet separately, they discovered one of the main aspects of the cannabis plant.
It’s quite possible that Roger Adams and the unexpected discovery of CBD was very much helped along by his rivalry with Alexander Todd. Either way, neither scientist reached the goal of isolating THC, though Roger Adams was able to identify it. It took another 25 years until Raphael Mechoulam finally did the job in 1964.
In a way, CBD was found completely accidentally. Though it would likely have been discovered at some point, it wasn’t even conceived of at the time it came to light. Roger Adams and Alexander Todd were trailblazers when it came to cannabis research, paving the way for Mechoulam, and the industry as we know it today.
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Disclaimer: Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advise, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics, should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.