Synthesizer of Urea
Wöhler was born in Eschersheim, Prussia (present day Germany), on July 31, 1800. In 1820 he entered the University of Marburg to become a doctor. He graduated with a medical degree in 1823 from the University of Heidelberg. At that time, he decided to focus on another area of science, chemistry.
Wöhler worked with Jöns Berzelius, an eminent chemist in Sweden, and began a lifelong correspondence with him. He soon began to study ways to isolate metals. In 1827 Wöhler heated an aluminum compound with potassium, which resulted in a nearly pure aluminum sample. Until this time, aluminum was not considered to be a metal. Wöhler’s research correctly identified it. He used a similar method to isolate beryllium, another metallic element, in 1828.
Many chemists during the early 1800s believed that organic compounds contained some vital force that distinguished them from inorganic compounds. In 1828 Wöhler conducted an experiment in which he combined an ammonia solution and lead cyanate, two inorganic compounds. Much to his surprise, the product resembled urea crystals, which are formed by acetic acid, an organic compound. The scientific community found it impossible to ignore his findings and the rigid distinction between inorganic and organic compounds eased. The vital force theory eventually lost support.
Wöhler investigated a wide variety of elements and compounds. He isolated or synthesized boron, silicon, and titanium. He researched the similarities between the elements carbon, silicon, and titanium. In 1831 Wöhler, in conjunction with German scientist Justus von Liebig, demonstrated that silver cyanate and silver fulminate had identical chemical compositions but very different chemical properties, a finding that would have significance for contemporary and future research. The pair later isolated the benzoyle group of radical atoms from the oil of almonds. A radical group is a group of atoms that remain together as a unit during chemical transformations.
Wöhler remained active throughout his life. He became a professor of chemistry in 1836 at the University of Göttingen and continued into his later years. He also began studying meteorites and geology. Wöhler died on September 23, 1882, in Göttingen, Germany.
Friedrich Wöhler’s Legacy
Wöhler’s synthesis of urea, an organic compound, helped usher in a new understanding of organic chemistry. His research into organic compounds helped broaden the body of knowledge concerning metals and their characteristics.
Wöhler’s work had an immediate impact on his contemporaries. His success with acetic acid and his discovery that organic substances could be synthesized from inorganic compounds encouraged other researchers to seek new ways of converting compounds from one chemical group to another. Wöhler’s and Liebig’s finding that compounds with identical chemical compositions man have distinctly different properties provided necessary experimental proof for Berzelius to propose the theory of isomerism, which states that chemical properties are dependent on both the number and types of atoms as wall as the structural arrangement of those atoms. Isomerism is a fundamental concept in today’s study of organic chemistry. Wöhler also helped his fellow European chemists by translating the detailed, yearly findings of Berzelius, which included classification systems for matter and the polar theory of chemical combination.
During his time as a professor, Wöhler taught thousands of students at the prestigious teaching laboratory at the University of Göttingen. Many went on to teach chemistry at the college level themselves.
Wöhler’s influence will last into the twentyfirst century. The isolation of aluminum led to the discovery of many uses for this strong, lightweight metal, such as automobile parts and beverage containers. Aluminum continues to find additional applications in today’s technology. The key radical groups that Wöhler and Liebig identified, in particular the benzoyle group, helped chemists understand how organic molecules behave during chemical reactions. Today, the synthesis of organic compounds affects medical research and has applications in many industries. Important research is now being done to find ways to reverse Wöhler’s discovery. Now scientists seek ways to convert organic compounds, which are renewable, into inorganic compounds, such as nonrenewable petroleum products.
Friedrich Wöhler – 1800-1882