Wilbur Scoville: The hottest man in nutrition gets his own Doodle

22 Jan 2016

Wilbur Scoville, creator of the Scoville scale to measure the strength of peppers, via Wikimedia Commons

Google’s drive to celebrate an ever-increasing number of notable figures in history continues with a bang today (22 January) with pepper supremo Wilbur Scoville’s 151st birthday celebrated with its own Doodle.

Bells, jalapenos, cayennes, ghosts, scorpions: all the same, all entirely different. If, like me, you are a complete wuss when it comes to hot, spicy food, then relying on the information in pepper packaging is imperative.

But how did humanity learn how to measure the difference between a standard pepper and a blow-your-head-off Trinidad scorpion pepper?

Well a man called Wilbur Scoville – who would be 151 today if the secret to everlasting life lay in eating peppers – found a way. Thus the name Scoville scale.

Can you feel it?

If you’re wondering why peppers are called capsicums in countries including the US and Australia, the key to ‘heat’ in a pepper is an active component of the foodstuffs, called capsaicin. It is by measuring this that you establish mild, hot and very hot peppers.

The Scoville scale, which measures the concentration of capsaicin, starts with bell peppers at the zero Scoville heat units (SHU), up to the 16 million that represents pure capsaicin.

Born in Bridgeport Connecticut in 1865, Scoville was a chemist, award-winning researcher, professor of pharmacology and the second vice-chairman of the American Pharmaceutical Association.

Using human testers to find out the various pepper heats, his book The Art of Compounding goes as far as suggesting milk as an antidote for head explosions after eating particularly powerful variants.

Google Doodle Wilbur Scoville

Doodler Olivia Huynh is behind the latest interactive Doodle, with a game seeing the user fire ice cream at evil peppers out to destroy poor Scoville.

“Spiciness is somewhat of a universal, comical experience, which I think opened the door for us to do something we usually might not be able to, like a fighting game,” said Huynh.

The boss at the end of the last ice cream battle is the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper (1.4m SHU), which was ranked as the hottest pepper in the world back in 2011.

The Carolina Reaper (1.5m SHU) took the mantle two years later and, as new peppers are constantly being found and grown, the next champ could be just around the corner.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic