Born July 31,1800, in Eschersheim; died Sept. 23, 1882, in Göttingen. German chemist. Educated as a physician. Studied chemistry with L. Gmelin in Heidelberg and with J. Berzelius in Stockholm. Professor at the technical school in Kassel from 1831 and professor at the University of Göttingen from 1836 until the end of his life. From 1853 a foreign corresponding member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences.
In 1822, Wöhler discovered cyanic acid (HOCN). In 1824, wanting to prepare ammonium cyanate (NH4CNO), he obtained a colorless crystalline substance which did not produce any of the reactions for ammonia or cyanic acid. In 1828 he established that this substance was identical to urea in composition and properties. Thus, Wöhler for the first time synthesized an organic compound from inorganic substances, thereby dealing a blow to the widespread vitalistic doctrine of a so-called life-force. However, the synthesis of urea remained for a long time the only fact and could not shake the belief in a life-force. The final fall of the doctrine of life-force in chemistry occurred only in the 1860’s, owing to the syntheses of the French chemist P. E. M. Berthelot.
In 1832, Wöhler and J. Liebig, studying derivatives of the oil of bitter almonds, showed that the benzoyl radical C7H50 transfers without change from one compound to another; they thereby strongly reinforced the theory of radicals. Wöhler’s other work in organic chemistry includes studies of uric acid and its derivatives (in collaboration with Liebig, 1838), obtaining tellurium diethyl (1840) and hydroquinone (1844), and investigations of opium alkaloids (1844). Of his works in organic chemistry, the following are well known: obtaining aluminum by heating aluminum chloride with potassium (1827), obtaining beryllium and yttrium by the same method (1828), obtaining phosphorus by heating calcium phosphate with carbon and sand (1829), obtaining silicon and its compounds with hydrogen and chlorine (1856-58), producing nitrides of silicon and titanium (1857-58), producing calcium carbide, and producing acetylene by the action of water on calcium carbide (1862). Wöhler created a large scientific school and wrote training manuals that received wide distribution.
WORKS“Über künstliche Bildung des Harnstoffes.” Annalen der Physik und Chemie, 1828, vol. 12.
Grundriss der unorganischen Chemie, 15th ed. Leipzig, 1873.
Grundriss der organischen Chemie, 10th ed. Leipzig, 1877.
Mineral-Analyse in Beispielen, 2nd ed. Göttingen, 1861.