Friedrich Wöhler: Pioneer in Organic Chemistry
Friedrich Wöhler was born on July 31, 1800, in Eschersheim, near Frankfurt am Main, in the Grand Duchy of Hesse (now part of Germany). Raised in a modest family, Wöhler demonstrated an early aptitude for science. His father, a blacksmith, supported his son’s intellectual pursuits.
Wöhler’s intellectual talents became evident during his early education. He attended the local gymnasium (high school) and later studied pharmacy at the University of Marburg. His interest in chemistry grew, leading him to pursue advanced studies at the University of Heidelberg and then at the Humboldt University of Berlin, where he studied under renowned chemists such as Jöns Jakob Berzelius and Eilhard Mitscherlich.
Cyanic Acid Synthesis (1828):
One of Wöhler’s most notable achievements occurred in 1828 when he synthesized urea, a compound previously thought to only be producible within living organisms. Collaborating with Justus von Liebig, Wöhler demonstrated that urea could be synthesized from inorganic compounds (ammonium chloride and silver cyanate). This experiment is considered a landmark moment in the history of chemistry, challenging the notion of vitalism and suggesting that organic compounds could be created through non-biological processes.
Professorship and Academic Career:
After obtaining his doctorate in 1823, Wöhler embarked on an academic career. He held various teaching positions at notable institutions, including the Gewerbeschule (Trade School) in Berlin and the Polytechnic School in Kassel. In 1836, Wöhler was appointed professor of chemistry at the University of Göttingen, where he remained for the rest of his career.
Work on Isomerism and Aluminum (1850s):
Wöhler made significant contributions to the understanding of isomerism, particularly in the realm of benzene derivatives. He also conducted extensive research on aluminum and its compounds.
Honors and Recognitions:
Wöhler received numerous honors during his career, including being elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and receiving the Copley Medal from the Royal Society in London.
Wöhler married Julie Pfeiffer in 1837, and the couple had four children. His wife’s death in 1872 deeply affected him, and he faced declining health in his later years.
Friedrich Wöhler is celebrated for his pioneering work in organic chemistry, particularly for his synthesis of urea, which shattered the prevailing belief in vitalism. His research laid the foundation for the field of synthetic organic chemistry, marking a shift toward viewing organic compounds as being governed by the same chemical laws as inorganic ones.
Friedrich Wöhler passed away on September 23, 1882, in Göttingen, Germany. Despite facing criticism and skepticism during his career, his contributions to chemistry are now recognized as pivotal in shaping the modern understanding of the discipline.