No one but a chemist can appreciate the full significance of the brief message which came to us a month ago without warning - "Wöhler is dead!" What need be added to it? No chemist was better known or more honored than Wöhler, and none ever deserved distinction and honor more than he. His life was made up of a series of brilliant successes, which not only compelled the admiration of the world at large, but directed the thoughts of his fellow workers, and led to results of the highest importance to science.
It is impossible in a few words to give a correct account of the work of Wöhler, and to show in what way his life and work have been of such great value to chemistry. Could he himself direct the preparation of this notice, the writer knows that his advice would be, "Keep to the facts." So far as any one phrase can characterize the teachings of Wöhler, that one does it; and though enthusiasm prompts to eulogy, let us rather recall the plain facts of his life, and let them, in the main, speak for themselves.1
He was born in the year 1800 at Eschersheim, a village near Frankfort-on-the-Main. From his earliest years the study of nature appears to have been attractive to him. He took great delight in collecting minerals and in performing chemical and physical experiments. While still a boy, he associated with a Dr. Buch, of Frankfort, and was aided by this gentleman, who did what he could to encourage in the young student his inclination toward the natural sciences. The first paper which bears the name of Wöhler dates from this period, and is upon the presence of selenium in the iron pyrites from Kraslitz. In 1820 he went to the University of Marburg to study medicine. While there he did not, however, neglect the study of chemistry. He was at that time particularly interested in an investigation on certain cyanogen compounds. In 1821 he went to Heidelberg, and in 1823 he received the degree of Doctor of Medicine. L. Gmelin became interested in him, and it was largely due to Gmelin's influence that Wöhler gave up his intention of practicing medicine, and concluded to devote himself entirely to chemistry.
For further instruction in his chosen science, Wöhler went to Stockholm to receive instruction from Berzelius, in whose laboratory he continued to work from the fall of 1823 until the middle of the following year. Only a few years since, in a communication entitled "Jugenderinnerungen eines Chemikers," he gave a fascinating account of his journey to Stockholm and his experiences while working with Berzelius. On his return to Germany, he was called to teach chemistry in the recently founded municipal trade school (Gewerbschule) at Berlin. He accepted the call, and remained in Berlin until 1832, when he went to Cassel to live. In a short time he was called upon to take part in the direction of the higher trade school at Cassel. He continued to teach and work in Cassel until 1836, when he was appointed Professor of Chemistry in Göttingen. This office he held at the time of his death, September 23, 1882.
In 1825 Wöhler became acquainted with Liebig, and an intimate friendship resulted, which continued until the death of Liebig, a few years ago. Though they lived far apart, they met during the vacations at their homes, or traveled together. Many important investigations were conceived by them as they talked over the problems of chemistry, and many papers appeared under both their names, containing the results of their joint work. Among such papers may be mentioned: "On Cyanic Acid" (1830); "On Mellithic Acid" (1830); "On Sulphotartaric Acid" (1831); "On Oil of Bitter Almonds, Benzoic Acid, and Related Compounds" (1832); "On the Formation of Oil of Bitter Almonds from Amygdalin" (1837); and "On Uric Acid" (1837).
Of the papers included in the above list, the two which most attract attention are those "On the Oil of Bitter Almonds" and "On Uric Acid." In the former it was shown for the first time that in analogous carbon compounds there are groups which remain unchanged, though the compounds containing them may, in other respects, undergo a variety of changes. This is the conception of radicals or residues as we use it at the present day. It cannot be denied that this conception has done very much to simplify the study of organic compounds. The full value of the discovery was recognized at once by Berzelius, who, in a letter to the authors of the paper, proposed that they should call their radical proin or orthrin (the dawn of day), for the reason that the assumption of its existence might be likened to the dawn of a new day in chemistry. The study of this paper should form a part of the work of every advanced student of chemistry. It is a model of all that is desirable in a scientific memoir. The paper on uric acid is remarkable for the number of interesting transformation products described in it, and the skill displayed in devising methods for the isolation and purification of the new compounds.
Comparatively little has been added to our knowledge of uric acid since the appearance of the paper of Liebig and Wöhler.
It would lead too far to attempt to give a complete list of the papers which have appeared under the name of Wöhler alone. In 1828 he made the remarkable discovery that when an aqueous solution of ammonium cyanate, CNONH, is evaporated, the salt is completely transformed into urea, which has the same percentage composition. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of this discovery. That a substance like urea, which up to that time had only been met with as a product of processes which take place in the animal body, should be formed in the laboratory out of inorganic compounds, appeared to chemists then to be little less than a miracle. To-day such facts are among the commonest of chemistry. The many brilliant syntheses of well-known and valuable organic compounds which have been made during the past twenty years are results of this discovery of Wöhler.
In 1823 he published a paper on secretion, in the urine, of substances which are foreign to the animal organism, but which are brought into the body. He discovered the transformation of neutral organic salts into carbonates by the process of assimilation.
In 1832 he investigated the dimorphism of arsenious acid and antimony oxide. In 1841 he made the discovery that dimorphous bodies have different fusing points, according as they are in the crystallized or amorphous condition.
Among the more remarkable of his investigations in inorganic chemistry are those on methods for the preparation of potassium (1823); on tungsten compounds (1824); the preparation of aluminum (1827); of glucinum and yttrium (1828). In 1856, working with Ste. Claire Deville, he discovered crystallized boron.
Analytical methods were improved in many ways, and excellent new methods were introduced by him. Further, he did a great deal for the improvement of the processes of applied chemistry.
With Liebig he was associated in editing the "Annalen der Chemie and Pharmacie" and the "Handwörterbuch der Chemie." He wrote a remarkably useful and popular "Grundriss der Chemie." The part relating to inorganic chemistry appeared first in 1831, and was in use until a few years ago, when Fittig wrote his "Grundriss" on the same plan, a work which supplanted its prototype.
The above will serve to give some idea of the great activity of Wöhler's life, and the fruitfulness of his labors. While thus contributing largely by his own work directly to the growth of chemistry, he did perhaps as much in the capacity of teacher. Many of the active chemists of the present day have enjoyed the advantages of Wöhler's instruction, and many can trace their success to the impulse gathered in the laboratory at Göttingen. The hand of the old master appears in investigations carried on to-day by his pupils.
Wöhler's was not a speculative mind. He took very little part in the many important discussions on chemical theories which engaged the attention of such men as Dumas, Gerhardt, Berzelius, and Liebig, during the active period of his life. He preferred to deal with the facts as such; and no one ever dealt with the facts of chemistry more successfully. He had a genius for methods which has never been equaled. The obstacles which had baffled his predecessors were surmounted by him with ease. He was in this respect a truly great man.
Personally, Wöhler was modest and retiring. His life was simple and unostentatious. He had a kindly disposition, which endeared him to his students, to which fact many American chemists who were students at Göttingen during the time of Wöhler's activity can cordially testify. In short, it may be said deliberately that Wöhler, as a chemist and as a man, was a fit model for all of us and for those who will come after us. Though he has gone, his methods live in every laboratory. His spirit reigns in many; could it reign in all, the chemical world would be the better for it.
See Kopp's "Geschichte der Chemie," iv., 440.