A Proposal: International Wilbur Scoville Day

Get to Know The Man Behind The Heat

Wilbur Scoville
A Proposal: International Wilbur Scoville Day. Public Domain

January 22nd isn’t a national holiday—yet!—but for spicy food lovers everywhere it ought to be. On this day in 1865, the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut saw the arrival of a baby boy who local chili lovers might argue is their city’s favourite son; to the rest of us, he’s the guy who would provide us with an official scale to use when needing to differentiate our favourite peppers by levels of hotness.

You know, for when you need to be more technical than saying, “Well, it’s a bit warm” as compared to “Oh my God, my mouth is on fire!”

Wilbur Lincoln Scoville was the creator of the well known measurement of the pungency which bears his name, the well known scale commonly referred to as the Scoville Scale. He created this system of measurement in 1912 while working as a researcher for the Parke-David Pharmaceutical company, with the formal name of the system being the ‘Scoville Organoleptic Test.’

The test works by measuring the level of capsaicin concentration in a chili pepper, which is reported in Scoville Heat Units or SHUs. You can gain a quick understand of the range of heat level in the scale by considering that a common bell pepper comes in at 0 SHU’s, while a Carolina Reaper (which has been rated as the world's hottest chili pepper by the Guinness World Records as of August 7, 2013) come in at an astounding (and intimidating) 1,600,000 - 2,200,00 SHU’s.

My mouth is bringing just typing that!

Our ability to state the hotness of our favourite chiles in such an exacting manner is all thanks to Wilbur Scoville. Thanks to him, we know there is a big difference between reaching for a jalapeño (which comes in at a paltry 1,000 - 4,000 SHU’s) and a habanero (100,000 - 350,000 SHU’s) when we want to add a bit of spiciness to our favourite Mexican dish, and we can only wonder what he would make of all the modern day chili-heads pushing the upper limits of his scale with new chili cultivars he could only dream of during his own life-time.

I like to think he’d be a fan of them all.

While his system is not without its faults—such as relying on trained testers which brings an element of human error into the equation—the Scoville Scale has become a fixture in modern culture, with many supermarkets displaying signs in their produce sections as a guide for shoppers looking for a bit of spiciness in their ingredients lists, and chili lovers everywhere frequently consult the scale online. 

Mr. Scoville earned awards from the American Pharmaceutical Association in 1922 and 1929 for his later work, but for chili lovers everywhere, he’ll always be best remembered for giving us a way to express how much pep we have in our pepper!