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Wöhler, Friedrich

chemistry urea inorganic life

[ voe ler] (1800–82) German chemist: achieved a synthesis of urea and first made many novel inorganic and organic compounds.

Young Wöhler was not very successful as a schoolboy; his passion for chemistry distracted him from all else. He graduated in medicine and at once moved to chemistry by joining for a year. On his return to Germany he began teaching chemistry, which was to fill his life; he was professor at Göttingen from 1836 until his death. Wöhler discovered the cyanates, and in 1828 he showed that ammonium cyanate when heated gave urea: NH4 CNO ? CO2 . Urea is a typical animal product, so that this reaction could be interpreted as marking the end of the idea of a ‘vital force’ essential for the chemistry of life. In fact several odd features confuse this. Wöhler’s cyanate was made by a process which was not wholly inorganic. Also, J Davy (1790–1868) had made urea in 1812 from NH3 and COCl2 but had not realized what he had made from these truly inorganic reactants. Syntheses by in the 1840s and 1850s marked the real logical end of vitalism; but Wöhler’s work in 1828 ended it in the minds of many chemists.

In 1832 Wöhler’s young wife died and, to distract him, invited him to Giessen for some joint work. This was a study of ‘oil of bitter almonds’, probably suggested by Wöhler; and from the oil (benzaldehyde) they made the related acid, chloride, cyanide and amide. Structure theory was yet to come; but the two recognized that a group of atoms (the benzoyl group, C6 H5 CO) was present in all these compounds. This was the first substantial ‘compound radical’ to be recognized, and this recognition was the beginning of the end of a period of confusion in organic chemistry.

Wöhler first made aluminium and beryllium, crystalline boron and silicon, and calcium carbide, and he saw (in 1863) the analogy between compounds of carbon and those of silicon.

In his long and valuable friendship with Liebig, Wöhler displayed none of the enthusiasm Liebig had for controversy. Wöhler had a lighter view; he was the writer of a skit on substitution theory which was published in the Annalen under the name S Windler. Later he remarked that he should have given a French name such as Ch Arlaton. He enjoyed writing and teaching even more than research, and probably taught about 8000 students in his life.

Waals, Johannes Diderik van der [next] [back] Vuitton, Louis

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