At the age of eighty-two years, and full of honor, after a life actively devoted to scientific work of the highest and most accurate kind, which has contributed more than that of any other contemporary to establish the principles on which an exact science like chemistry is founded, the illustrious Wöhler has gone to his rest.
After he had worked for some time with Berzelius in Sweden, he taught chemistry from 1825 to 1831 at the Polytechnic School in Berlin; then till 1836 he was stationed at the Higher Polytechnic School at Cassel, and then he became Ordinary Professor of Chemistry in the University of Göttingen, where he remained till his death. He was born, July 31, 1800, at Eschersheim, near Frankfort-on-the-Main.
Until the year 1828 it was believed that organic substances could only be formed under the influence of the vital force in the bodies of animals and plants. It was Wöhler who proved by the artificial preparation of urea from inorganic materials that this view could not be maintained. This discovery has always been considered as one of the most important contributions to our scientific knowledge. By showing that ammonium cyanate can become urea by an internal arrangement of its atoms, without gaining or losing in weight, Wöhler furnished one of the first and best examples of isomerism, which helped to demolish the old view that equality of composition could not coexist in two bodies, A and B, with differences in their respective physical and chemical properties. Two years later, in 1830, Wöhler published, jointly with Liebig, the results of a research on cyanic and cyanuric acid and on urea. Berzelius, in his report to the Swedish Academy of Sciences, called it the most important of all researches in physics, chemistry, and mineralogy published in that year. The results obtained were quite unexpected, and furnished additional and most important evidence in favor of the doctrine of isomerism.
In the year 1834, Wöhler and Liebig published an investigation of the oil of bitter almonds. They prove by their experiments that a group of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms can behave like an element, take the place of an element, and can be exchanged for elements in chemical compounds. Thus the foundation was laid of the doctrine of compound radicals, a doctrine which has had and has still the most profound influence on the development of chemistry--so much so that its importance can hardly be exaggerated. Since the discovery of potassium by Davy, it was assumed that alumina also, the basis of clay, contained a metal in combination with oxygen. Davy, Oerstedt, and Berzelius attempted the extraction of this metal, but could not succeed. Wöhler then worked on the same subject, and discovered the metal aluminum. To him also is due the isolation of the elements yttrium, beryllium, and titanium, the observation that silicium can be obtained in crystals, and that some meteoric stones contain organic matter. He analyzed a number of meteorites, and for many years wrote the digest on the literature of meteorites in the Jahresbericht der Chemie; he possessed, perhaps, the best private collection of meteoric stones and irons existing.
Wöhler and Sainte Claire Deville discovered the crystalline form of boron, and Wöhler and Buff the hydrogen compounds of silicium and a lower oxide of the same element. This is by no means a full statement of Wöhler's scientific work; it even does not mention all the discoveries which have had great influence on the theory of chemistry. The mere titles of the papers would fill several closely-printed pages. The journals of every year from 1820 to 1881 contain contributions from his pen, and even his minor publications are always interesting. As was truly remarked ten years ago, when it was proposed by a Fellow of the Royal Society that a Copley medal should be conferred upon him, "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."
While sojourning at Cassel, Wöhler made, among other chemical discoveries, one for obtaining the metal nickel in a state of purity, and with two attached friends he founded a factory there for the preparation of the metal.
Among the works which he published were "Grundriss der Anorganischen Chemie," Berlin, 1830, and the "Grundriss der Organischen Chemie," Berlin, 1840. Nor must we omit to mention "Praktischen Uebringen der Chemischen Analyse," Berlin, 1854, and the "Lehrbuch der Chemie," Dresden, 1825, 4 vols.
At a sitting of the Academy, held on October 2, 1882, M. Jean Baptiste Dumas, the permanent secretary, with profound regret, made known the intelligence of the death of the illustrious foreign associate, Friedrich Wöhler, professor in the University of Göttingen. He said: "M. Friedrich Wöhler, the favorite pupil of Berzelius, had followed in the lines and methods of work of his master. From 1821 till his last year he has continuously published memoirs or simple notes, always remarkable for their exactness, and often of such a nature that they took among contemporaneous production the first rank by their importance, their novelty, or their fullness. Employed chiefly, during his sojourn in Sweden, in work on mineral chemistry, he has remained all his life the undisputed chief in this branch of science in German universities. This preparation and preoccupation, which one might have thought sufficient to occupy his time, did not, however, prevent him from taking the chief part in the development of organic chemistry, and of filling one of the most elevated positions in it.
"His contemporaries have not forgotten the unusual sensation produced by the unexpected discovery by which he was enabled to make artificially, and by a purely chemical method, urea, the most nitrogenous of animal substances. Other transformations or combinations giving birth to substances which, until then, had only been met with in animals or plants, have since been obtained, but the artificial formation of urea still remains the neatest and most elegant example of this order of creation. All chemists know and admire the classical memoir in which Wöhler and Liebig some time after made known the nature of the benzoic series, and connected them with the radicals of which we may consider them as being the derivatives comparable with products of a mineral nature. Their memoirs on the derivatives of uric acid, a prolific source of new and remarkable substances, has been an inexhaustible mine in the hands of their successors.
"This is not a moment when we should pretend to review the work which M. Wöhler has done in mineral chemistry. Among the 240 papers which he has published in scientific journals, there are few which the treatises of chemistry have not immediately turned to account. We need only confine ourselves to the discovery of aluminum, to which the energy and inventive genius of our confrère, Henry Deville, soon gave a place near the noble metals. United by a rivalry which would have divided less noble minds, these two great chemists carried on together their researches in chemistry, and joined their forces to clear up points still obscure in the history of boron, silicium, and the metals of the platinum group, and remained closely united, which each year only strengthened.
"The reader will pardon me a souvenir entirely personal. We were born, M. Wöhler and I, in 1800. I am his senior by a few days. Our scientific life began at the same date, and during sixty years everything has combined to bind more closely the links of brotherhood which has existed for so long a time."