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Summary Article: Wöhler, Friedrich from Chambers Biographical Dictionary

1800-82

German chemist

Born in Eschersheim, he was educated at the universities of Marburg and Heidelberg, and qualified as a doctor of medicine in 1823, but he never practised. He taught chemistry at industrial schools in Berlin (1825-31) and Kassel (1831-36), and became professor of chemistry at Göttingen in 1836, remaining there until his death. However, one of the formative experiences of his life was the year he spent with Jöns Jacob Berzelius in Stockholm and this led to a lifelong friendship. His friendship with Justus von Liebig was equally important to him, and from their common interest in cyanates came Wöhler's most famous discovery. In 1828 he attempted to prepare ammonium cyanate from silver cyanate and ammonium chloride, but instead obtained urea. Equally important was his preparation of aluminium in 1827. The Danish scientist Hans Oersted claimed to have extracted the metal from alumina in 1825, but it is doubtful whether the metal he obtained was pure aluminium. Wöhler used a different procedure and the product (still extant) is essentially pure metal. For this work he was honoured by Napoleon III, but there are still arguments, mainly nationalistic, about priority. From 1840 onwards he undertook numerous administrative and government duties, and his research output diminished. He was an inspiring teacher and maintained a keen interest in chemistry well into his old age. He was responsible for the translation of the influential annual reports prepared by Berzelius, occasionally moderating the latter's strident language.

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2011

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