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Dumas, Jean Baptiste André

organic compounds theory views

[dümah] (1800–84) French organic chemist; classified organic compounds into types.

Originally an apprentice apothecary, Dumas improved his knowledge of chemistry in Geneva and also attracted the notice of some eminent scientists, with the result that he was encouraged to go to Paris. There he got a post as assistant at the école Polytechnique, and by 1835 a senior post there. He initially worked on atomic weights but his main distinction is that he was a leader in the group of mainly French chemists who partly rejected the authoritative views of and offered new views on the relations between organic compounds, setting the stage for the major advances made later by . Dumas’s work in this began with his study of the choking fumes from candles used in the Tuileries. He found that these had been bleached with chlorine and from this clue examined the reaction of chlorine with other organic compounds. In some cases he showed that the reaction had replaced hydrogen by chlorine on an atom-for-atom basis and yet gave a product of essentially the same type (eg acetic acid, CH3 CO2H, gives a series of three chlorine-substituted acids CH2 ClCO2H, CHCl2 CO2H, CCl3 CO2H, which are not greatly unlike their parent in their chemistry). This was in direct conflict with Berzelius’s dualism theory, which did not allow for atoms of opposite electrical type replacing one another in this manner. Dumas pressed his theory of substitution and his theory that organic compounds exist as ‘types’ (eg the alcohols) and argued that a type may contain a series of compounds whose formulae differ by a constant unit (eg CH2 ). Somewhat similar views were developed by others (notably and in France, and in Germany and in England). During the period of debate many new and useful organic compounds were made and theory was advanced, apparently with rejection of Berzelius’s views. However, after 1930, it was seen that the Berzelius approach to organic reactions (in a much modified form) had an important part in understanding why organic reactions occur, while his opponents had also been right in their criticisms. Dumas, ambitious and energetic, followed a pattern more familiar in France than elsewhere by moving from science to politics, holding various ministerial posts after 1848.

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