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Fischer, Emil (Hermann)

chemistry natural following product

(1852–1919) German organic chemist: the unsurpassed master of natural product chemistry.

Fischer was born near Cologne, to a grocer who acquired a wool-spinning mill and a brewery, hoping his son would follow him in business or, failing that, become a chemist. The father, a Rhinelander, passed to his son his cheery temperament and an appreciation of wine. Fischer did so well at school that he passed the leaving examination too young to enter the university, and so he joined his uncle’s timber trade. To the sorrow of his relatives, he then set up a private laboratory to work in during the day and spent the evenings playing the piano and drinking. In the family judgment ‘he was too stupid for a business-man and therefore he must become a student’. This he did and read physics and botany, and a little chemistry under in 1871 in Bonn. In the following year he moved to Strasbourg to study under , and in 1875 he went to Munich following Baeyer. He had already discovered phenylhydrazine, which was to become so useful to him 10 years later. It lso gave him chronic eczema.

He had become a single-minded and successful organic researcher. However, since he ‘could not give up smoking and did more wine-drinking than was good for him’ he had to recuperate every year. Nevertheless, his researches went well – on purines, sugars, dyes and indoles. But the dreadful odour of skatole so adhered to him and his students that they encountered difficulties in hotels when travelling. In 1885 he moved to Würzburg as professor, and in 1892 succeeded as professor in Berlin. The chair carried much work in administration and he complained bitterly about the loss of time and energy during his 12 years in Berlin.

His work on natural products was superb. As well as bringing order to carbohydrate chemistry, partly by use of phenylhydrazine, and synthesizing a range of sugars, including glucose, his studies on glycosides, tannins and depsides are outstanding: especially those on the peptides and proteins, begun in 1899. These compounds are fundamental to biochemistry. It was he who clearly grasped their essential nature as linear polypeptides derived from amino acids; he laid down general principles for their synthesis and made an octadecapeptide (having 15 glycine and 3(-)-leucine residues, relative molecular mass 1213) in 1907. He had much personal charm and wrote with great clarity and brevity. For his contributions to natural product chemistry, he received the second Nobel Prize awarded in chemistry, in 1902.

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