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Berthelot, Marcellin (Pierre Eugène)

chemistry organic compounds carbon

[bairtuhloh] (1827–1907) French chemist: pioneer in organic synthesis and in thermochemistry.

As the son of a Paris physician, Berthelot saw the city life of the poor and the sick and was often unwell himself. His life was successful from school prizes to world-wide honours in old age, but his early impressions remained, and at 71 he wrote ‘I have never trusted life completely’.

Originally a medical student, he turned to chemistry early. Previously, organic chemistry had been concerned with compounds derived from living nature and little synthesis had been attempted. From 1854 Berthelot used synthetic methods in a systematic way and built up large molecules from simple starting compounds. Thus he made methanol from methane, methanoic acid from carbon monoxide, ethanol from ethene, and fats (glycerides) from propane-1,2,3-triol and organic acids. He made ethyne from hydrogen passed through a carbon arc and benzene from ethyne. The former idea of a ‘vital force’ was banished; organic chemistry became simply the chemistry of carbon compounds and organic chemists had a new basis for their thinking and an emphasis on synthesis, increasingly making compounds (as Berthelot did) that do not occur in nature. In the 1860s he studied the velocity of reactions and, later, the heat they evolved (thermochemistry). He concluded that reactions are ‘driven’ in the direction which evolves heat. (In fact, the matter is not as simple as this, as showed.) He also worked on physiological chemistry and on explosives (he discovered the ‘detonation wave’).

He was scientific adviser during the siege of Paris by the Prussians in 1870 and later was a Senator, and Foreign Minister in 1895. He died a few hours after his wife, and the two had the unique state honour of a joint burial in the Panthéon.

Berthollet, Claude Louis, Comte - NAPOLEON AND SCIENCE [next] [back] Bertali, Antonio

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