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What do laundry detergents and animal pancreases have in common?

Today, enzymes are considered an essential component of detergents. A little over a century ago, enzymes were not so ubiquitous. Meet the man responsible for discovering, propagating and commercialising the use of enzymes in laundries.

Otto Röhm was born in the German town of Öhringen almost 15 decades ago. After qualifying as a pharmacist, he studied chemistry at the university level, where he initially focussed his attention on tanning.

He was the first chemist to recognise the effectiveness of pancreatic enzymes from animals in the tanning of hides, and developed new techniques for the leather industry. This success prompted him to become one of the co-founders of the general partnership Röhm & Haas. In 1913, Rohm was granted a German patent centered on enzymes extracted from animal pancreases.

Research into enzymes sparked further developments in their applications in the cosmetics, textile, pharma, food processing…and laundry industry. His technical applications of enzymes in washing detergents revolutionised the business.

Enzymes for breaking down protein — obtained from animal pancreases — were used for the first time in a product developed by Röhm called Burnus. This released the dirt embedded by proteins, which would have penetrated the textiles through the high washing temperatures. Dirt removal from the textiles would then only be possible with a great deal of soap and mechanical effort.

Burnus was not a detergent in the traditional sense, but a pure stain remover applied before the actual washing process. The laundry was soaked in Burnus for a few hours and then washed with only a little soap and much less harm to both the fibres and the person doing the washing.

Despite the high quality of the product, selling the soaking agent was not an easy task. Laundry women expected to buy an agent, intended to make washing easier, with lots of foam, sold in large cartons. Burnus didn’t fulfil these criteria.

It took the scarcity of fat, soap and fuel during World War I – all of which were needed in copious amounts for washing – to influence consumers to look at an enzyme-based product favourably. Since Burnus helped to remove a large part of the dirt in cold water, it helped to save fuel and soap.

The proteolytic (protein-breaking) enzymes Röhm used were derived from milled animal pancreases, which were quite crude and contained many impurities that in turn sometimes stained the very textile they were supposed to clean. Neither was the process of enzyme extraction economical enough to include it routinely in household detergents. Currently, these enzymes are manufactured commercially in large quantities through fermentation by common soil bacteria like Bacillus subtilis or Bacillus licheniformis.

While the method of enzyme production may have changed, the underlying mode of stain removal remains the same, all thanks to a visionary chemist who had probably never heard of sustainability and ESG, but who makes them possible, 80 years after his passing.

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