Friedrich Wöhler

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Friedrich Wöhler
Friedrich Wöhler Litho.jpg
Friedrich Wöhler c. 1856, age 56
Born(1800-07-31)31 July 1800
Died23 September 1882(1882-09-23) (aged 82)
Known forFather of organic chemistry, Wöhler synthesis of urea
AwardsCopley Medal (1872)
Scientific career
FieldsOrganic chemistry
InstitutionsPolytechnic School in Berlin
Polytechnic School at Kassel
University of Göttingen
Doctoral advisorLeopold Gmelin
Jöns Jakob Berzelius
Doctoral studentsHeinrich Limpricht
Rudolph Fittig
Adolph Wilhelm Hermann Kolbe
Georg Ludwig Carius
Albert Niemann
Vojtěch Šafařík
Carl Schmidt
Theodor Zincke
Other notable studentsAugustus Voelcker
Wilhelm Kühne

Friedrich Wöhler (German: [ˈvøːlɐ]) FRS(For) HFRSE (31 July 1800 – 23 September 1882) was a German chemist. He is known for his work in inorganic chemistry, being the first to isolate numerous chemical elements. He is also known for work in organic chemistry, in particular the Wöhler synthesis of urea.[1] The Life and Work of Friedrich Wöhler (1800–1882) (2005) by Robin Keen is considered to be "the first detailed scientific biography" of Wöhler.[2]


He was born in Eschersheim, which then belonged to Hanau, but is now a district of Frankfurt am Main. He was educated at the Frankfurt Gymnasium. His initial higher studies were at Marburg University in 1820.[3]

On 2 September 1823 Wöhler passed his examinations as a Doctor of Medicine, Surgery, and Obstetrics at Heidelberg University, having been taught in the laboratory of Leopold Gmelin. Gmelin encouraged him to focus on chemistry, and arranged for him to work under Jöns Jakob Berzelius in Stockholm, Sweden.[3][4]

From 1826 to 1831 Wohler taught chemistry at the Polytechnic School in Berlin. In 1839 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[edit]

Inorganic chemistry[edit]

Wöhler was known for being a co-discoverer of beryllium, silicon and silicon nitride,[5] 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 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.

The element beryllium
The element yttrium

Wöhler was the first to isolate the elements beryllium in 1828 (also independently isolated by Antoine Bussy),[3][6] and yttrium in 1828.[7] In 1850, he determined that what was believed until then to be metallic titanium was in fact a mixture of titanium, carbon, and nitrogen, from which he derived the purest form isolated to that time.[8] (Completely pure titanium would not be isolated until 1910, by Matthew A. Hunter.)[9]

Wöhler and Sainte Claire Deville discovered the crystalline form of boron, and Wöhler and Heinrich Buff discovered silane in 1856.

Wöhler observed that "silicium" (silicon) can be obtained in crystals, and that some meteoric stones contain organic matter. He analyzed 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.

Organic chemistry[edit]

Wöhler has been regarded as a pioneer in organic chemistry as a result of his synthesizing urea from ammonium cyanate in the Wöhler synthesis in 1828.[3][10] In a letter to Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius the same year, he wrote, 'In a manner of speaking, I can no longer hold my chemical water. I must tell you that I can make urea without the use of kidneys of any animal, be it man or dog.'[11]

This discovery has become celebrated as a refutation of vitalism, the hypothesis that living things are alive because of some special "vital force". It was the beginning of the end for one popular vitalist hypothesis, the idea that "organic" compounds could be made only by living things. In responding to Wöhler, Jöns Jakob Berzelius clearly acknowledged that Wöhler's results were highly significant for the understanding of organic synthesis, calling them a "jewel" for Wöhler's "laurel wreath". Both men also recognized the work's importance to the study of isomerism, a new area of research.[12]

Wöhler's role in overturning vitalism is rightly argued to have become exaggerated over time. This tendency can be traced back to Hermann Kopp's History of Chemistry (in four volumes, 1843–1847). He emphasized the importance of Wöhler's research as a refutation of vitalism, but ignored its importance to isomerism, setting a tone for subsequent writers.[12] The myth that Wöhler single-handedly overturned vitalism also gained popularity after it appeared in a popular history of chemistry published in 1931, which, "ignoring all pretense of historical accuracy, turned Wöhler into a crusader".[13] [14] [15] [16] [17][18] [19] [20]

Final days and legacy[edit]

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".[21]

Wöhler's students included chemists Georg Ludwig Carius, Heinrich Limpricht, Rudolph Fittig, Adolph Wilhelm Hermann Kolbe, Albert Niemann, Vojtěch Šafařík, Wilhelm Kühne and Augustus Voelcker.[22]


He was first married to his cousin Franziska Maria Wöhler (b. 25 September 1811 in Kassel) in Kassel on 1 June 1830. The couple had two children, a boy (August, b. 22. May 1831 in Berlin) and a girl named Sophie (b. 1 June 1832 in Kassel). After the death of Franziska (11 June 1832 in Kassel) he married Julie Pfeiffer (b. 13 July 1813 in Kassel) on 16 July 1834 in Kassel. The couple had four daughters (Fanny, Helene, Emilie and Pauline).

Further works[edit]

Further works from Wöhler:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Keen, Robin (2005). Buttner, Johannes (ed.). The Life and Work of Friedrich Wöhler (1800–1882) (PDF). Bautz.
  2. ^ Hoppe, Brigitte (March 2007). "Robin Keen: The Life and Work of Friedrich Wöhler (1800–1882)". Isis. 98 (1): 195–196. doi:10.1086/519116.
  3. ^ a b c d Weeks, Mary Elvira (1956). The discovery of the elements (6th ed.). Easton, PA: Journal of Chemical Education.
  4. ^ Kauffman, George B.; Chooljian, Steven H. (2001). "Friedrich Wöhler (1800–1882), on the Bicentennial of His Birth". The Chemical Educator. 6 (2): 121–133. doi:10.1007/s00897010444a.
  5. ^ Deville, H.; Wohler, F. (1857). "Erstmalige Erwähnung von Si3N4". Liebigs Ann. Chem. 104: 256.
  6. ^ "Beryllium". Royal Society of Chemistry. Retrieved 1 January 2020.
  7. ^ "Yttrium". Royal Society of Chemistry. Retrieved 1 January 2020.
  8. ^ Saltzman, Martin D. "Wöhler, Friedrich". Retrieved 1 January 2020.
  9. ^ "Titanium". Royal Society of Chemistry. Retrieved 1 January 2020.
  10. ^ Wöhler, Friedrich (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".
  11. ^ Chemie heute, Schroedel Verlag, Klasse 9/10. Chapter 3: Chemie der Kohlenwasserstoffe. Excursus pg. 64, ISBN 978-3-507-86192-3. Translated from original: „Ich kann, so zu sagen, mein chemisches Wasser nicht halten und muss ihnen sagen, daß ich Harnstoff machen kann, ohne dazu Nieren oder überhaupt ein Thier, sey es Mensch oder Hund, nöthig zu haben.“
  12. ^ a b Rocke, Alan J. (1993). University of California Press (ed.). The Quiet Revolution: Hermann Kolbe and the Science of Organic Chemistry. Berkeley. pp. 239–. ISBN 978-0520081109.
  13. ^ Ramberg, Peter J. (2000). "The Death of Vitalism and the Birth of Organic Chemistry: Wohler's Urea Synthesis and the Disciplinary Identity of Organic Chemistry". Ambix. 47 (3): 170–195. doi:10.1179/amb.2000.47.3.170. PMID 11640223.
  14. ^ McKie, Douglas (1944). "Wöhler's syntethic Urea and the rejection of Vitalism: a chemical Legend". Nature. 153 (3890): 608–610. Bibcode:1944Natur.153..608M. doi:10.1038/153608a0.
  15. ^ Brooke, John H. (1968). "Wöhler's Urea and its Vital Force – a verdict from the Chemists". Ambix. 15 (2): 84–114. doi:10.1179/000269868791519757.
  16. ^ Schummer, Joachim (2003). "The notion of nature in chemistry" (PDF). Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. 34 (4): 705–736. doi:10.1016/s0039-3681(03)00050-5.
  17. ^ Uray, Johannes (2009). "Mythos Harnstoffsynthese". Nachrichten aus der Chemie. 57 (9): 943–944. doi:10.1002/nadc.200966159.
  18. ^ Johannes Uray: Die Wöhlersche Harnstoffsynthese und das wissenschaftliche Weltbild. Graz, Leykam, 2009.
  19. ^ Uray, Johannes (2010). "Die Wöhlersche Harnstoffsynhtese und das Wissenschaftliche Weltbild – Analyse eines Mythos". Mensch, Wissenschaft, Magie. 27: 121–152.
  20. ^ Ramberg, Peter, "Myth 7. That Friedrich Wöhler’s Synthesis of Urea in 1828 Destroyed Vitalism and Gave Rise to Organic Chemistry" eds. Numbers, Ronald L., and Kostas Kampourakis, Newton's apple and other myths about science. Harvard university press, 2015, 59-66.
  21. ^ Scientific American Supplement No. 362, 9 Dec 1882. Retrieved on 28 May 2014.
  22. ^ Goddard, Nicholas (2004). "Voelcker, (John Christopher) Augustus (1822–1884)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/28345. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.) The first edition of this text is available at Wikisource: "Voelcker, John Christopher Augustus" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.

Further reading[edit]

  • Keen, Robin (2005). Buttner, Johannes (ed.). The Life and Work of Friedrich Wöhler (1800–1882) (PDF). Bautz.
  • Johannes Valentin: Friedrich Wöhler. Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft Stuttgart ("Grosse Naturforscher" 7) 1949.
  • Georg Schwedt: Der Chemiker Friedrich Wöhler. Hischymia 2000.

External links[edit]