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Friedrich Woehler (1800-1882)

Friedrich Woehler was born in 1800 near Frankfort-on the-Main. In his early life he developed hobbies of mineral collecting and drawing. He became fascinated with chemistry when, through his father, he gained access to a friend's private chemical laboratory. As a medical student at Marburg University he won a prize for his investigations on the passage of different waste materials into urine. The paper included descriptions of experiments that he performed on his dog and himself. Woehler showed such talent in the laboratory that even after he obtained his doctorate in Medicine, Surgery, and Midwifery he was encouraged by the chemist Leopold Gmelin to continue his chemical investigations. At Gmelin's suggestion Woehler sought a position in the laboratory of the Swedish chemist Berzelius. In the Swedish lab he pursued studies on his recently synthesized cyanic acid. This led to the preparation of silver cyanate which, in turn, would lead to a collaboration with Justus von Liebig and the discovery of the property of isomerism. Woehler continued his chemical studies and in 1828 reported the finding that the combination of potassium cyanate with ammonium sulfate led to the production of a compound that was identical in composition to that of the naturally occurring compound urea.

In 1836 Woehler accepted a position at Goettingen where he proceeded to develop one of the great teaching laboratories of the world. Although he seemed destined to be a major force in the development of Organic Chemistry Woehler returned to his roots in Inorganic Chemistry and played a role in the discovery of aluminum, beryllium, and yttrium. Woehler died September 23, 1882 in Goettingen.

Ref. "Woehler-Urea without a kidney" in "Crucibles-The stories of great chemists" by Bernard Jaffe, The world Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1942: pp. 175-198