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Business, STEM

Measuring Hot, Hot, Hot With Scoville Heat Units

Scoville_Heat_Scale_700_widthGoogle’s latest doodle reminds us that today is the 151st birthday of Wilbur Scoville, an American pharmacist who created the Scoville Oranoleptic Test which is better known as the Scoville Scale. What? What? What?

Even more interesting, Mr. Scoville’s birthday just happens to fall on a Friday when Winter Storm Jonas is expanding its wintry footprint across parts of the South and Mid-Atlantic regions. Not only are blizzard warnings in effect, predictions of a historic blizzard hitting the east coast may already be underway. Jonas, also known by other names – Snowmageddon, Snowpocolypse, or Snowzilla – has resulted in the cancellation of most if not all flights at major airports in the region. Residents – as many as 50 million by some estimates –living in the path of the snow storm should already be sheltered in place, and prepared to ride out the weekend at home or in a hotel room. Numerous injuries and non-injury collisions have already been reported as roadways turn to ice.

That bring us back to the Scoville Scale. Right about now, most folks are trying to stay warm as power lines and grids fail. Staying warm and comfortable includes lots of hot chocolate, soups and stews, and other comfort food. Wilbur Scoville developed the “organoleptic test” of pepper heat and the scale that bears his name today while working as an employee of Parke-Davis, once America’s oldest and largest drug maker.

According to a post in Vox [Ref 1], Scoville invented his scale as part of an effort to improve the production of Heet liniment, a painkilling cream produced by Parke-Davis. The active ingredient in Heet was capsaicin, the key chemical that makes chili peppers spicy. To produce the cream, Parke-Davis needed to extract capsaicin from peppers. And to ensure the cream had a proper dosage of capsaicin, the company wanted to better measure how much was present in different peppers.

The Scoville Scale is a measurement of the pungency (spicy heat) of chili peppers, such as the jalapeno, ghost peppers, and the world’s (current) hottest pepper—the Carolina Reaper, or other spicy foods as reported in Scoville heat units (SHU). Neuropathy symptoms are often treated with high concentrations of topical hot pepper extracts (capsacin) that is applied to the skin. However, since at least the 1980s, spice heat has been more precisely measured by a method that uses high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). [Source: Wikipedia]

In addition to his work as a pharmacist and researcher, Scoville authored The Art of Compounding, a reference book that was used by pharmacists well into the 1960s.

Stay safe! Stay warm! And eat a few peppers!


  1. Wilbur Scoville invented the way we measure hot peppers’ spiciness, by Matthew Yglesias, January 22, 2016, http://www.vox.com/2016/1/22/10810564/wilbur-scoville-google-doodle

About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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