Friedrich Wöhler c. 1856, age 56
|Died||23 September 1882 (aged 82)|
|Known for||Wöhler synthesis of urea|
|Awards||Copley Medal (1872)|
|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|
Prof Friedrich Wöhler (German: ['vø:l?]) FRS(For) HFRSE (31 July 1800 - 23 September 1882) was a German chemist, best known for his synthesis of urea, but also the first to isolate several chemical elements, most notably titanium.
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.
In 1823 Wöhler finished his study of Medicine at Heidelberg University, having been taught in the laboratory of Leopold Gmelin, who then arranged for him to work under Jöns Jakob Berzelius in Stockholm, Sweden.
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.
Wöhler is regarded as a pioneer in organic chemistry as a result of his (accidentally) synthesizing urea from ammonium cyanate in the Wöhler synthesis in 1828. 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.'
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 be made only by living things.
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 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.
Wöhler was the first to isolate the elements yttrium, beryllium, and titanium, and to observe 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. Wöhler and Sainte Claire Deville discovered the crystalline form of boron, and Wöhler and Heinrich Buff discovered silane in 1856. Wöhler also prepared urea, a constituent of urine, from ammonium cyanate in the laboratory without the help of a living cell.
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".
He married twice: firstly in 1830 to Franziska Wohler (d.1832), and secondly in 1834 to Julie Pfeiffer.
Further works from Wöhler: