Albany: Chloroform Capital

Albany was once America’s leading city for an awful lot of things. We moved the most lumber. We led the country in the manufacture of stoves and pianos. And it turns out that Albany was once the chloroform capital of the country.

The Albany Chemical Company was listed in 1888’s “The Empire State: Its Industries and Wealth” as a manufacturer of fluid extracts, elixirs, chemicals, etc., located then at 65 and 67 Green Street.  “No department of commercial enterprise in the city of Albany is  of more direct value and importance to the community than that in which the practical manufacturing chemist brings to bear his professional skill and experience.” Or something.

 The business began in 1878 as Albany Pharmaceutical Co., which then occupied a four-story building with laboratories “admirably equipped with all the latest improved apparatus, appliances and machinery known to the trade.”

“The company makes a specialty of producing large quantities of mercurial ointment, solution of the chloride of iron, concentrated spirit of nitre, ether, chloroform, etc. They have a patent for the manufacture of chloroform, and turn out annually about half the quantity that is used in the United States.” Chloroform was an early anesthetic, which for a time replaced ether.

The company also had a plant somewhere on Van Rensselaer Island (in the current Port of Albany). In 1905 they were listed as occupying 2-24 Broadway. Because of the tangle of highways it’s hard to tell where that was.

Twice, the Albany Chemical Company (chemist G. Michaelis, President, and W.T. Mayer, Secretary-Treasurer) was involved in patent issues. First, for chloroform. In 1899, The Albany Chemical Company was involved in a complicated patent infringement case against the Larkin & Scheffer company. Commenting on the case, Dr. E.R. Squibb (yeah, that Squibb) said “This subject of chloroform is so mixed up, it’s a pretty bad business. The patent on the process of making it from acetone was one of the most invalid ever granted . . . The patent on chloroform from acetone was granted to Roessler & Hasslacher. Chloroform had been made from acetone before they were born, but they got the patent, in spit of such invalidity . . . They had no more right to one in America than Behring had to the patent he obtained last year on antitoxin. But it has always seemed to be easy enough to patent almost anything in this country, if you only have money enough.”

That’s from an article in “The Pharmaceutical Era,” March 16, 1899, which goes on to quote Dr. Squibb: “The Albany Chemical Co., and Roessler & Hasslacher were litigants for several years over infringements of patent rights in chloroform. Before they got a decision that was satisfactory to either party to the suit they combined and made Pfizer the agent for all the chloroform produced by both concerns. I made chloroform for years, but I had to stop on account of a patent which had no real validity.”

Albany Chemical must have won that fight, because a 1905 article (in the “Paint, Oil and Drug Review”) speaks of the patents still held by Albany Chemical and another company that were about to expire. At that time there was talk of moving production to Niagara Falls, the source of the bleaching powder needed for the process. “It takes twelve pounds of bleaching powder to one pound of acetone to make about a pound of chloroform . . . Instead of shipping the powder elsewhere to be used in the manufacture of chloroform, the new plan is to manufacture the anaesthetic at Niagara Falls and thereby save considerable in freight charges.”

Another patent case tomorrow.




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