The plant source of alkaloid strychnine was discovered in 1818. This discovery was made by French chemists Joseph-Bienaime Caventou (1795-1877) and Pierre-Joseph Pelletier. Strychnine comes from the seeds of the nux vomica tree that grows in India. Pelletier was eventually successful in developing a means of extracting strychnine from this source. While strychnine was just one of many plant alkaloids isolated by Caventou and Pelletier, it is unique because of its complex structure of interlocking rings.
Although strychnine is a poison, it has been used in the past as a medicine. Strychnine was once prescribed as a remedy for heart and respiratory complaints and as a stimulant (or body "upper"). It is no longer used today because the size of an effective dose would be toxic.
American chemist Robert Burns Woodward (1917-1979; winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in chemistry) was successful in synthesizing (blending artificially) numerous complex organic compounds. For example, in 1944 he worked with William von Eggers Doering to synthesize quinine, a malaria treatment.
Woodward discovered the structure of strychnine in 1949. He began manufacturing the drug in 1954 using a complex manufacturing process. This process involved several stages where careful planning was needed to control the internal design of the compounds. In the synthesis of most compounds, the important factor is that the drugs become less expensive and more readily available. The simpler the manufacturing process, the better the chemical companies like it. In this case however, Woodward did something different. He synthesized a very complex molecule using a complex process from simple chemicals. This was a major manufacturing innovation and Woodward's findings proved to chemists that this type of synthesis was possible.