Alkaloids are usually classified by their common molecular precursors, based on the biological pathway used to construct the molecule. When not much was known about the biosynthesis of alkaloids, they were grouped under the names of known compounds, even some non-nitrogenous ones (since those molecules' structures appear in the finished product; the opium alkaloids are sometimes called "phenanthrenes", for example), or by the plants or animals they were isolated from. When more is learned about a certain alkaloid, the grouping is changed to reflect the new knowledge, usually taking the name of a biologically-important amine that stands out in the synthesis process.
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The purely chemical literature on the alkaloids is especially voluminous; and from the assiduity with which the constitutions of these substances have been and are still being attacked, we may conclude that their synthesis is but a question of time.
The chemistry of the alkaloids is treated in detail by Ame Pictet in his La Constitution chimique des alcaloides vegetaux (Paris, 1897); enlarged and translated by H. Biddle with the title The Vegetable Alkaloids (New York, 1904); and by J. Bruhl, E. Hjelt, and O. Aschan: Die Pflanzen-Alkaloide (two).
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