Geek of the Week: Friedrich Wöhler

By Joe Luna

IN THE BEGINNING, there was Jons Jacob Berzelius. Discoverer of silicon, scribe of the Law of Constant Proportions, coiner of the word “protein”, we need not add to the tomes outlining his greatness as a father of modern chemistry (plus he was born in 1779). Instead, and perhaps fittingly, we will focus on one of his trainees, Friedrich Wöhler, born 31 July, 1800.

Wöhler graduated with a medical degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1823, and with the help of his advisor Leopold Gmelin, secured a position to study with Berzelius in Stockholm where he remained until 1826 (“postdoc” would not be an out of place term). It’s easy to imagine the Berzelius lab in the mid-1820’s as a busy place for a young scientist. The boss is away giving lectures on newly discovered selenium to the academy or an early version of stoichiometry to medical students, meanwhile you’re in the throes of the first mad dashes in science by trying to discover a new element with nothing more than dirt and a voltaic pile.

Friedrich Wöhler (1800 – 1882)

Relating chemistry to biology, the atmosphere in these early days must have been electric with confusion, because inasmuch as most learned men were convinced that “life” was animated by processes beyond mere chemistry and physics, the data were slowly starting to mount against these Vitalist claims. Both Wöhler and Berzelius knew, for instance, from Galvani’s experiments in frogs that electricity played an important role in generating animal movement. They also knew of and were able to isolate a variety of chemical substances from living organisms (indeed the “organic” moniker was affixed to these very compounds, later found by Berzelius to all contain carbon). The issue of whether an organic compound could be synthesized artificially from inorganic starting materials appeared a fool’s errand since it ran counter to the predominant Vitalist dogma of the day. Yet, I’d imagine that Berzelius was open to the idea, and that perhaps Wöhler took note. Berzelius may have been an early critic of Vitalism, yet even he conceded there was no real data to refute it and remained content in his later years to simply reject its more mystical explanations.

Wöhler left Stockholm in 1826 to take a teaching position at the Polytechnic School in Berlin. There, in his laboratory one famous day in 1828, while attempting to synthesize ammonium cyanate starting from lead cyanate and ammonia, Wöhler quite accidentally synthesized its isomer, urea, without the aid of a kidney. Talk about the ultimate in vitro re-constitution, right!? Though it was a major intellectual leap forward, at the time, Wöhler was more interested in the concepts behind isomerization and in a later letter to Berzelius, actually lamented that he helped undermine such a “beautiful hypothesis” (Vitalism) with an “ugly fact” (urea crystals). Whoops.

It is important to note that Vitalism didn’t die in Wöhler’s test tube in 1828, despite what your freshman year chemistry textbook tells you. Examples abound throughout the 19th century of eminent scientists still skeptical of the chemical basis of life processes. Case in point – no less a genius than Pasteur declared that fermentation could only occur with living cells, and thus had to be animated by some vital force. Plus, while Wöhler showed that urea synthesis was possible, he most certainly did not figure out how living beings produce urea (lead cyanate anyone?) That took another 130 years, when the urea cycle was hammered out by Hans Krebs (born a century after Wöhler: 25 August, 1900).

Not that any of this mattered to Wöhler, because as much as we remember him as a founder of modern organic chemistry, he made most of his career as an inorganic chemist – he was the first to isolate aluminum, titanium, yttrium, and beryllium in pure metallic form. And did I mention his sideburns?

Join the conversation!