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31 July 1800|
Eschersheim, Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel, Holy Roman Empire
|Died||23 September 1882
Göttingen, German Empire
|Institutions||Polytechnic School in Berlin
Polytechnic School at Kassel
University of Göttingen
|Doctoral advisor||Leopold Gmelin
Jöns Jakob Berzelius
|Doctoral students||Heinrich Limpricht
Adolph Wilhelm Hermann Kolbe
Georg Ludwig Carius
|Other notable students||Augustus Voelcker
|Known for||Wöhler synthesis of urea|
He was born in Eschersheim, which belonged to Hanau at the time but is nowadays a district of Frankfurt am Main. In 1823 Wöhler finished his study of medicine in Heidelberg at the laboratory of Leopold Gmelin, who arranged for him to work under Jöns Jakob Berzelius in Stockholm. He taught chemistry from 1826 to 1831 at the Polytechnic School in Berlin until 1839 when he was stationed at the Polytechnic School at Kassel. Afterwards, he became Ordinary Professor of Chemistry in the University of Göttingen, where he remained until his death in 1882. In 1834, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Contributions to chemistry
Wöhler is regarded as a pioneer in organic chemistry as a result of his (accidentally) synthesizing urea in the Wöhler synthesis in 1828. This discovery has become celebrated as a refutation of vitalism, the hypothesis that living things are alive because of some special "vital force". However, contemporary accounts do not support that notion. This Wöhler Myth, as historian of science Peter J. Ramberg called it, originated from a popular history of chemistry published in 1931, which, "ignoring all pretense of historical accuracy, turned Wöhler into a crusader who made attempt after attempt to synthesize a natural product that would refute vitalism and lift the veil of ignorance, until 'one afternoon the miracle happened'". Nevertheless, it was the beginning of the end of one popular vitalist hypothesis, that of Jöns Jakob Berzelius that "organic" compounds could only be made by living things.
Major works, discoveries and research
Wöhler was also known for being a co-discoverer of beryllium, silicon and silicon nitride, as well as the synthesis of calcium carbide, among others. In 1834, Wöhler and Justus Liebig published an investigation of the oil of bitter almonds. They proved by their experiments that a group of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms can behave like an element, take the place of an element, and can be exchanged for elements in chemical compounds. Thus the foundation was laid of the doctrine of compound radicals, a doctrine which had a profound influence on the development of chemistry.
Since the discovery of potassium by Humphry Davy, it had been assumed that alumina, the basis of clay, contained a metal in combination with oxygen. Davy, Oerstedt, and Berzelius attempted the extraction of this metal, but failed. Wöhler then worked on the same subject, and discovered the metal aluminium in 1827. To him also is due the isolation of the elements yttrium, beryllium, and titanium, the observation that "silicium" (silicon) can be obtained in crystals, and that some meteoric stones contain organic matter. He analyzed a number of meteorites, and for many years wrote the digest on the literature of meteorites in the Jahresberichte über die Fortschritte der Chemie; he possessed the best private collection of meteoric stones and irons existing. Wöhler and Sainte Claire Deville discovered the crystalline form of boron, and Wöhler and Heinrich Buff discovered silane in 1857. Wöhler also prepared urea, a constituent of urine, from ammonium cyanate in the laboratory without the help of a living cell.
Final days and legacy
Wöhler's discoveries had great influence on the theory of chemistry. The journals of every year from 1820 to 1881 contain contributions from him. In the Scientific American supplement for 1882, it was remarked that "for two or three of his researches he deserves the highest honor a scientific man can obtain, but the sum of his work is absolutely overwhelming. Had he never lived, the aspect of chemistry would be very different from that it is now."
While sojourning at Cassel, Wöhler made, among other chemical discoveries, one for obtaining the metal nickel in a state of purity, and with two friends he founded a factory there for the preparation of the metal.
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Works from Wöhler:
- Lehrbuch der Chemie, Dresden, 1825, 4 vols.
- Grundriss der Anorganischen Chemie, Berlin, 1830
- Grundriss der Organischen Chemie, Berlin, 1840
- Praktische Übungen in der Chemischen Analyse, Berlin, 1854
Works about Wöhler
- Johannes Uray: “Mythos Harnstoffsynthese”, Nachrichten aus der Chemie 57 (2009) 943−944.
- Johannes Uray: Die Wöhlersche Harnstoffsynthese und das wissenschaftliche Weltbild. Graz, Leykam, 2009.
- Robin Keen: The Life and Work of Friedrich Wöhler. Bautz 2005.
- Johannes Valentin: Friedrich Wöhler. Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft Stuttgart (“Grosse Naturforscher” 7) 1949.
- Georg Schwedt: Der Chemiker Friedrich Wöhler. Hischymia 2000.
- John H. Brooke: “Wöhler's Urea and its Vital Force – a verdict from the Chemists.” In: Ambix 15 (1968) 84.114.
- George B. Kauffman, Steven H. Chooljian (2001). "Friedrich Wöhler (1800–1882), on the Bicentennial of His Birth". The Chemical Educator 6 (2): 121–133. doi:10.1007/s00897010444a.
- Douglas McKie: “Wöhler's syntethic Urea and the rejection of Vitalism: a chemical Legend.” In: Nature 153 (1944) 608-610. doi:10.1038/153608a0
- Peter J. Ramberg: “The Death of Vitalism and the Birth of organic Chemistry. Wöhler's Urea Synthesis and the disciplinary Identity of organic Chemistry.” In: Ambix 47 (2000) 170-215.
- Johannes Uray: “Die Wöhlersche Harnstoffsynhtese und das Wissenschaftliche Weltbild – Analyse eines Mythos.” In: Mensch, Wissenschaft, Magie 27 (2010) 121-152.
- Charles A. Joy (August 1880). "Biographical Sketch of Frederick Wöhler". Popular Science Monthly 17.
- John Christopher Augustus Voelcker, (1899) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- Friedrich Wöhler (1828). "Ueber künstliche Bildung des Harnstoffs". Annalen der Physik und Chemie 88 (2): 253–256. Bibcode:1828AnP....88..253W. doi:10.1002/andp.18280880206. Available in English at: Chem Team
- The Real Death of Vitalism: Implications of the Wöhler Myth
- cited by Schummer J, op cit
- Deville, H. and Wohler, F. (1857). "Erstmalige Erwähnung von Si3N4". Liebigs Ann. Chem. 104: 256.
- Scientific American Supplement No. 362, 9 Dec 1882