Friedrich Wöhler



Early Life and Education:

Friedrich Wöhler was a German Chemist who was born in 1800 in Eschersheim, Prussia. In 1820, he started his studies in the field of medicine at Marburg University but he was very soon transferred to another university that is the University of Heidelberg. In 1923, his M.D. was received by him and then he started studying chemistry. It was for more than a year that he studied in Stockholm with a very well-known chemist, Jöns Berzelius. Inorganic Chemistry caught him by interest at that time.

Contributions and Achievements:

By 1828, Wöhler could heat aluminum chloride and potassium, mixed together in a platinum container, and withdrew aluminum. This was all based on Hans Christian Oersted’s work. A similar technique was used by Wöhler for the production of beryllium and a wide range of aluminum salts. Calcium Carbide was created by him very soon and he was also very close in detecting vanadium.

Berzelius’ theory called ‘Vitalism’ was disapproved by Wöhler. The theory said that there were just two categories in which the compounds fell namely organic and inorganic. It was a supposition that it was only in the tissues of the living creatures where organic compounds could be formed. This was where a main force could change them. It would not be possible for an organic matter to be synthesized, based on the above theory, from inorganic reactants. It was Berzelius’ belief that the rules for inorganic compounds could not be applied to the organic compounds. A teacher of Wöhler named Leopold Gmelin clung to this theory of Berzelius.

In 1828, when he was conducting an experiment with ammonium cyanate, he had to heat lead cynate and ammonia solution to form crystals of urea. It was determined by Wöhler that the elements in urea and the elements in ammonium cyanate are the same and they are also in the same proportion. They are called isomers. Organic compounds were produced by Wöhler from inorganic reactants. Very soon, Wöhler’s discovery became irrelevant as it was found that cynate was an organic matter itself. But this definitely made other chemists optimistic about developing organic substances from inorganic substances. Once again, vitalism was disapproved of when a chemist named Adolf Kolbe created acetic acid by combining the elements oxygen, carbon and hydrogen in 1845. It was finally then that Berzelius’ theory of vitalism was discredited.

Wöhler then started studying the metabolism of the body by experimenting with, both, his knowledge of chemistry and medical training. After the death of his wife in 1832, he went to Germany to work at the Liebig’s laboratory with Justus von Liebig. Together, they carried out a research study on bitter almonds which are the source of the poisonous cynate. They verified that the pure oil from the bitter almonds did contain any poisonous element of hydrocyanic acid. Benzaldehyde oil and the reactions caused by it were also studied by them.

At that time they discovered that the benzoyl group of atoms did not change when various experiments were conducted on it. They called it ‘radicals’. This theory proved to be very important in the field of organic compounds. Wöhler was offered a job at the University of Göttingen in 1836. He carried on to his research of aluminum and cyanides and he was the first one to create silicon nitride and hydride, silicon, titanium and boron.

Later Life:

Wöhler became occupied in the later years of his life. He had a position as a pharmacy and chemistry professor. He had to manage the laboratories and he also served as the inspector general, in Hanover, Germany, for all the pharmacies. He also translated some books and research papers of Berzelius into German. Along with that he started his studies on meteorites in geology. His students worldwide sent him illustrations and samples and he would publish around 50 papers on the subjects. Many textbooks and papers were published by him throughout his life and his students numbered around 8,000. Some of his students were Rudolph Fittig and Jewett. Charles Hall who was Jewett’s student came up with a commercially practical way of producing aluminum that left behind Wöhler’s way. Wöhler passed away in 1882 in Gottingen.