Meaning of WOHLER, FRIEDRICH in English

WOHLER, FRIEDRICH

Whler, detail of a lithograph by R. Hoffmann, 1856 (b. July 31, 1800, Eschersheim, near Frankfurt am Main d. Sept. 23, 1882, Gttingen, Ger.), German chemist, first to synthesize (1828) an organic compound (urea) from an inorganic substance. About the same time, he developed a process for preparing metallic aluminum. Whler was educated at the Frankfurt Gymnasium. In 1820 he entered the University of Marburg, intending to become a physician. In the following year he moved to Heidelberg, where he came under the influence of one of the most prominent chemists of Germany, Leopold Gmelin. Gmelin recognized Whler's ability and advised him to make chemistry his career. Accordingly, though the young man received a medical degree in 1823, he decided to give up practical medicine and take up the study of chemistry with the leading chemist of Europe, Jns Jacob Berzelius, in Stockholm. He worked with the latter for nearly a year, from 1823 to 1824. He not only absorbed the techniques and the interest in the chemistry of new elements, for which Berzelius was famous, but also developed a lifelong friendship with his master. His correspondence with Berzelius throws much light on the personalities of both men. Whler later translated the major reviews and textbooks of Berzelius into German. Upon his return to Germany Whler began in 1825 to teach chemistry at the municipal technical school in Berlin. He remained at this institution until 1831 and there made two of his major discoveries. In 1828 he synthesized urea, which had been considered a purely animal product, from ammonium cyanate, an inorganic compound. This achievement has been hailed by older historians of science as an important step in the overthrow of the doctrine of vitalism, the theory that a special life force directs the processes in living bodies. More recently it has been recognized that Whler was more interested in the chemical reactions of urea than in the philosophical significance of its synthesis. About the same time that he synthesized urea, Whler developed a method for the preparation of metallic aluminum on a small scale. The method was later expanded to an industrial process. In 1831 Whler was called to the technical school in Kassel. He had married his cousin, Franziska Whler, in 1829, and the couple had a son. In 1832 his wife died in giving birth to a daughter. Whler had previously become acquainted with his contemporary Justus von Liebig, who taught at Giessen, and Liebig suggested that Whler might better endure the loss of his wife if he joined his friend in research. The two chemists took up the study of the chemistry of oil of bitter almonds (benzaldehyde). From this investigation came the theory of radicals, the first attempt to understand the structure of organic compounds. An even more important result of the study was the cementing of the friendship of these two leading investigators. Their relationship was of great benefit to each man. Their letters, which have been published, tell much of the characters of both. Liebig was a remarkable experimentalist, but he tended to be opinionated and rather quarrelsome. Whler was much more restrained. In 1834 Whler married Julie Pfeiffer, a friend of his first wife. There were two daughters by this marriage. In 1836 he was appointed professor of chemistry at the University of Gttingen, and there he remained for the rest of his life. He continued his studies in both inorganic and organic chemistry. He isolated several elements and new minerals and investigated compounds of physiological importance, such as uric acid and cocaine. He continued to carry out some of his studies jointly with Liebig. Whler's fame did not grow as rapidly as that of Liebig, whose laboratory at Giessen was a centre for chemical research. After 1850 more and more students were attracted to Gttingen, not only because of the research reputation of the laboratory but also because of the personality of Whler. He was above all an outstanding teacher, and teaching was his favourite occupation. He was less interested in the laboratory side of instruction, allowing his assistants to direct much of the thesis work. Students were given great freedom to choose their own problems and to publish their results under their own names. Whler devoted himself to lectures, in which he excelled. He also drew his students to him by his personal kindliness and his interest in their lives and problems. His correspondence with many of them has been preserved, and it shows that he continued to be interested in their careers long after they had left him. Whler's publishing activities were also important. Besides his translations of the major works of Berzelius, which resulted in their wide currency, he wrote a number of important textbooks in organic, inorganic, and analytic chemistry. He served as one of the editors of Justus Liebigs Annalen der Chemie, the major chemical journal of its day. He was an honorary member of nearly every scientific society and received many medals and awards. Henry M. Leicester Additional reading A good general biography is A.W. von Hoffmann, Friedrich Whler, in Eduard Farber (ed.), Great Chemists (1961). Whler's relations with his students are documented by H.S. van Klooster, in Friedrich Whler and His American Pupils, J. Chem. Ed., 21:158170 (1944).

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