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Couper, Archibald Scott

atoms edinburgh organic structure

[koo per] (1831–92) British organic chemist: pioneer of structural organic chemistry and victim of misfortune.

After leaving school Couper studied a variety of subjects; classics at Glasgow and philosophy at Edinburgh were separated by visits to Germany, where he learned German speedily. As the son of a wealthy manufacturer, he seems to have studied whatever interested him; he concentrated on chemistry somewhere between 1854 and 1856. By 1858 he had spent 2 years in Paris, researching on benzene compounds, and early in that year he completed a paper ‘On a New Chemical Theory’ and asked to present it at the French Academy. However, Wurtz delayed and published his theory of organic structure shortly before Couper’s paper appeared. Couper’s views were similar, but much more clearly expressed. He argued that carbon had a valence of 2 or 4; and that its atoms could self-link to form chains. He showed chemical structures with broken lines to connect bonded atoms and he saw these structures as representing chemical reality; in these respects his ideas were ahead of Kekulé’s. However, the latter had priority of publication and forcefully pressed his superiority. Couper quarrelled with Wurtz, returned to Edinburgh and soon his depression led to illness. He never recovered, although he lived in mental frailty for another 33 years, ignored as a chemist.

Credit for the idea of a ring structure for benzene is rightly given to Kekulé (1865), but it is hardly known that the first ring structure for any compound was proposed 7 years earlier by Couper, for a heterocyclic reaction product from salicylic acid and PCl 5 .

Modern structural formulae were first widely used by A C Brown (1838–1922) of Edinburgh from 1861, who included double and triple bonds between carbon atoms.

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