It is 60 years since the micropipette was invented in Germany. To mark the anniversary, John Windell revisits the circumstances of its creation.
Of all the great scientific advances, the pipette is among the most unassuming. It is a commonplace item found in every lab in every hospital and research centre around the world. But make no mistake – the humble pipette has played a major role in clearing the way for some of the giant leaps we have seen in biology, chemistry and medicine in recent decades.

The pipette as we know it today made its debut 60 years ago in 1957 in Germany. Its story begins with the 32-year-old physician Heinrich Schnitger joining Theodor Bücher’s research team at the Institute of Physiological Chemistry at the University of Marburg, testing and measuring optical enzymes. 

Schnitger was set to work on anion exchange chromatography. He watched intently as a gravity-driven contraption separated nucleotides and metabolites, then collected the minuscule samples for further analysis. The son of an inventor, Schnitger had already come up with an improved device for measuring blood coagulation and felt he could improve the gravitational process. He assembled a piston-driven pumping system that was quicker and gave far more accurate control. Everybody was impressed, but for Schnitger this solution threw up a new challenge – how to collect and manage all those tiny samples.
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