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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service


item List, Gary

Submitted to: Inform
Publication Type: Popular Publication
Publication Acceptance Date: March 1, 2006
Publication Date: April 1, 2006
Citation: List, G.R. 2006. Giants of the past: Hippolyte Mege (1817-1880). Inform. 17(4):264.

Technical Abstract: Hippolyte Mege was born October 24, 1817, in Draguigan in southern France. He began his career as a chemist as an assistant in his home town at the age of 16. Following a period of training in Aix-en-Province, he moved to Paris and, after a competitive examination on April 1, 1838, took a position as a pharmacist at the Hotel Dieu hospital which he held until 1845. His first invention was a remedy for syphilis. Copahin, a common remedy at the time could not be taken orally by some patients. Mege treated the drug with nitric acid which eliminated the side effects. Mege was awarded a prize for this achievement. By 1850, other inventors surnamed Mege appeared. Thus, he added his mother’s maiden name to his own and, therefore, is known as Hippolyte Mege Mouries except in official documents. Other early patents granted to him included effervescent tablets, paper making, sugar making and the use of egg yolks for the tanning of leather. By the late 1840’s, Mege had changed careers from pharmacy to a consulting chemist. By 1852, Mege began to carry out research on foods. He deduced, from analytical data, that some species of animals have more calcium phosphate in their blood. Thus, Mege marketed a product consisting of calcium phosphate and protein and sold it as a health food. Mege sent a report on the subject to the Acdemie des Sciences who encouraged his work with a contribution of 500 Francs. A member of the committee who recommended the grant was none other than Michel Chevreul, who later was to have considerable influence on Mege’s career. From 1854-1860, Mege carried out research on bread making, while famous at the time, this work has long been forgotten. His work allowed the preparation of 14% more white bread from wheat than previously possible. Mege lectured on his process in Berlin, Brussels and Paris and was awarded two gold medals for it. Napoleon III awarded him the Legion of Honor, largely upon Chevreul’s recommendation. However, his process was rather cumbersome and did not prove attractive to bakers because of government subsidies discouraging increased outputs of bread. However, army bakeries used the process for some time before modern milling methods made it obsolete. By 1861, Mege had become prosperous and married, but his wife died in 1865. It was during this time frame that Mege turned to fats, obtaining a patent on the cold saponification of milk, a process Chevreul was very enthusiastic about, but the discovery proved impractical. By 1865, Mege was busily engaged in dairy research at the Imperial Farm, owned by Napoleon III, in Vincennes near Paris. He noted that starved cows, while losing weight and yielding less milk, still produced fat in the milk. He thus embarked on a program to produce butter artificially and, thus, became a pioneer in biotechnology, which brought him lasting fame, i.e. the invention of margarine. The second French empire under Napoleon III was marked by considerable economic and industrial growth. Many French citizens migrated from the farm to cities, creating a demand for butter which could not be met. As a result butter prices soared, leading Napoleon III to offer a prize for anyone who could discover a process to manufacture a butter substitute. By 1869, the year the prize was offered, Mege had completed his work and was easily the winner. On July 15, 1869, the French Ministry of Agriculture and Trade granted Mege a patent for 15 years for the processing and production of certain fats of animal origin and the patent was registered in England as well. By 1873, Mege received a United States Patent (146,012; 1-1-1873) entitled “Improvements in treating animal fats,” and, in part, it reads, “My invention, which is the result of physiological investigation, consists of artificially producing the natural work which is performed by the cow when it reabsorbs its fat in order to transform the same into butter.” Shortly after the issuance of his U.S. Patent, the first margarine plant was built in the U.S. In her book, “Margarine as a butter substitute,” Katherine Snodgrass presents a thorough discussion of the Mege-Mouriez (sic) process, described in the British patent dated July 17, 1869. It reads: 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. 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 deg F) with water containing small quantities of bicarbonate of soda, casein of cold milk and mammary tissues along with yellow coloring matter. This is digested, allowed to settle, decanted and cooled and yields a preserved butter. Fresh butter is obtained by agitating the above mixture until a cream is formed, which is then treated as usual to obtain the butter. Thus, the Mege process consists of 4 steps: (1) mincing and washing of fresh fat, (2) digestion with artificial gastric juice, (3) expression of the softer portion of the fat, (4) digestion and agitation of the soft fat thus obtained with milk and mammary gland extract. Step 1 contributed to improving the flavor of the fat through washing to remove non-fatty contaminants. What Mege intended to accomplish in step 2 is not clear. Either he thought it to be a special rendering or it changed the chemical nature of the fat. The latter, of course, is not true. Troost, a contemporary of Mege, stated that the purpose of digestion was to free the fat from membranes, thus preventing formation of tallow odors. Step 3, or expression of the softer fraction, does produce a product of modified composition which resembles butter with regard to melting point and consistency to some degree. Step 4, or the emulsification process, in which the oleo stock is mixed with milk and mammary gland tissue was thought by Mege to change the chemical mixture of the fat through the action an enzyme in the cow’s udder. In the 1870’s and for decades thereafter, it was thought that the flavor of butter resulted from the presence of volatile acids not found in other fats. Of course today it is known that butter flavor results from the products of fermentation between milk and microorganisms. However, step 4 represents a significant discovery in that churning fat with milk does impart butter flavors and emulsification tends to impart butter texture to this product. Mege deserves credit for two important discoveries: (1) a bland neutral fat may be obtained by rendering with water at low temperature, (2) working a fat with milk tends to impart butter flavor to margarine. By 1875, Mege obtained a patent for the canning of beef and an 1880 patent described the use of sea water salt in human nutrition. Mege died May 13, 1880, from a liver disease. Reportedly, only his home town newspaper honored his death. He is buried, along with his wife and son, in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in France.

Last Modified: 8/29/2016
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