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Baeyer, Adolf von

organic chemist synthesis named

[ biy er] (1835–1917) German organic chemist: master of classical organic synthesis.

Baeyer’s life spanned a period of rapid change in science and technology; from laws of electrolysis to X-ray crystallography and from the first rail services to regular air transport. His father was a Prussian soldier who became a general. The boy was a keen chemical experimenter, which prompted a poet visiting the family to write a verse on the dreadful smells he caused. When Baeyer was 12 he made his first new substance, the beautiful blue crystalline carbonate CuNa 2 (CO 3 ) 2 .3H 2 O; and he celebrated his 13th birthday by buying a lump of the bronze-purple dye indigo.

After his military service in 1856 he went to study chemistry in Germany’s best-known laboratory, that of in Heidelberg. However his interest soon focused on the organic side, which Bunsen had given up, and so he joined as his first research student. His first independent work was done during 12 years spent teaching organic chemistry in a small Berlin technical college. He moved from there to Strasbourg and then to Munich, working there for 40 years.

Baeyer was a hugely talented organic chemist with an instinctive feel for structures and reactions. He was an experimenter who saw theory as a tool which was easily expendable after use: he wrote ‘I have never planned my experiments to find out if I was right, but to see how the compounds behave’. His preference was for simple equipment, mainly test-tubes and glass rods; he was suspicious even of mechanical stirrers. He had no superior as an organic chemist in his Munich period and all the best men in the field worked with him.

His successes included the structure and synthesis of indigo. His work on the purine group began with studies on uric acid and included the synthesis of the useful barbiturate drugs (named, he said, after a lady friend named Barbara). Other work dealt with hydrobenzenes, terpenes and the sensitively explosive polyalkynes. It was in connection with the latter that he devised his strain theory to account for the relative stabilities of carbocyclic rings, which in modified form is still accepted. Absent-minded and genial, he was very popular with his students. He won the Nobel Prize in 1905.

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