Wilbur Scoville Wasn’t a Weirdo


Thinking about the first tests to determine the heat of chili peppers.

It’s far too easy to think of Wilbur Scoville as a little bit out of his mind. After all, humans are terrible at gauging… well, anything. Given a crime scene, every witness will see something different. And, it’s damned difficult to agree on specific color – so much so that there are color reference guides printed to assist designers and the like.

Humans just aren’t reliable. (Even you.)

So, the idea of a test to determine heat based on human perceptions is wacky.

But, Wilbur Scoville wasn’t a weirdo.

The development of the Scoville Scale and the tests that assign a heat level to chili peppers and hot sauces fit almost perfectly with the time when Scoville lived.

In the Scoville Days

Wilbur Scoville was born in 1865 – at the end of the Civil War. And, at some point, he took a job at Parke-Davis, which you may know as a pharmaceutical company. (There are a few other facts available regarding Scoville’s life, but not enough to paint a compelling picture.)

He’s said to have developed the Scoville test in 1912.

That’s what’s important. Not the test itself, actually, but the year. It was a busy time in world history. In 1912, the Dixie Cup was invented (who knew?), as was the zip, the electric blanket, Formica and the traffic light. In the same year, Paramount Pictures was founded, and the International Opium Convention is signed at The Hague. It’s only 2 years until cocaine is made illegal in the United States (even if most of it had been taken out of Coca-Cola by this point), but in 1912, vitamins are introduced as a concept (but hardly an industry at that point). The wireless radio was well over a decade old, though not necessarily widely used.

And, in case of history has escaped you completely, that’s also the year the Titanic sank to the bottom of the ocean.

Truly, it was a crazy time to live – not unlike today.

When Wilbur Scoville took a job at Parke-Davis, he was one of the thousands of scientists, pharmacists, and dreamers in the scene. You wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a crowd. And the idea of a heat scale would have seemed mundane next to the development of the Dixie Cup.

Wilbur Scoville Wouldn’t Have Rocked the Dinner Party Scene.

Indeed, the Scoville Scale wasn’t anything exciting, even if the humans testing the hotness of chili peppers set a few mouths alight.

He wasn’t the sort of scientist that would be invited round to dinner parties to fill the celebrity seat at the table, either. His work wouldn’t have prompted the riveting conversation.

“So what do you do?”
“I work for Parke-Davis. At the moment, I am developing a test to determine the heat of various chili peppers.”

And chili peppers weren’t even a primary concern for Scoville; we can’t really credit him as the Grandfather of Chili Heads or anything like that. At the time, he was better known for publishing a book titled The Art of Compounding 1895. If you studied pharmacology at any point before the Vietnam War, this would have been the one book you needed to have on your shelf. Chili peppers, what?

For the time and place that he lived, Wilbur Scoville wasn’t a weirdo. He was a scientist and pharmacist with a burning question or two (sorry about that pun). If he went around calling for chili eating volunteers today, that’s another story. Of course, we know a lot of you would respond to that Craigslist ad, wouldn’t you?

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