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Johann Friedrich Adolf von Baeyer

Johann Friedrich Adolf von Baeyer

The German chemist Johann Friedrich Adolf von Baeyer (1835-1917) experimented in the organic field, notably achieving the synthesis of indigo. He received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1905.

Adolf von Baeyer was born in Berlin on Oct. 31, 1835. From an early age Adolf was devoted to the study of nature; for example, he planted date seeds in a series of pots which were nourished successively by milk, wine, and ink. The 8-year-old who conducted such endeavors was destined to become a superb experimentalist during 60 years of leadership and to garner many scientific honors.

Analysis of Organic Molecules

After comprehensive studies in physics and mathematics at the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium in Berlin, Baeyer went to the University of Berlin, where he pursued the same course. One year later, convinced that chemistry was to be his life, Baeyer moved to Heidelberg to study. His doctoral research on arsenical organic compounds was completed in 1858 and indicated his future scientific focus—the analysis and synthesis of organic molecules.

At the new laboratories established in the Gewerbe institute in Berlin, Baeyer assembled a brilliant circle of chemists that rivaled the group gathered by A. W. von Hofmann at the University of Berlin. To this period belong Baeyer's studies of uric acid, which contributed to the clarification of the biochemical differences in the metabolic processes of mammals and reptiles.

The years from 1865 to 1885 were devoted to the painstaking investigation of the organic dyes, particularly indigo, alizarin, and isatin. This work contributed immensely to the German dye industry's phenomenal growth but brought no material rewards to Baeyer, who generously shared his insights and techniques with his students.

Other Investigations

Baeyer and his pupils also pioneered in the study of polyacetylenes, oxonium salts, and the internal architecture of aromatic compounds and other ring structures. Generally an experimentalist, he used the structure theory of his friend August Kekulé as the theoretical base on which to build his life's work. Baeyer proposed a "centric" formula for benzene, and a "strain" theory, correlating the stability of cyclic compounds with the ring angles, to account for the submolecular properties of complex compounds. His studies in the condensation reactions of ketones and aldehydes, plus his abiding interest in plant physiology, led him to propose a photosynthetic theory which stimulated much research on this important topic.

Baeyer was married and the father of four children. He was active in the German Chemical Society and occupied some of the most prestigious chairs in the German academic world. He lived for his science, his students, and his collaborators. These included Emil and Otto Fischer, Edward Hepp, and Richard Willstäter, all of whom achieved the highest ranking in the international chemical world. Baeyer's 300 important papers are one of the great monuments of German intellectual life.

Further Reading

Baeyer's autobiography, which covers only the first half of his life, is not available in English. The best short account of Baeyer is the essay by Richard Willstäter in Eduard Farber, ed., Great Chemists (1961). His technical achievements are treated in Eduard Farber, The Evolution of Chemistry: A History of Its Ideas, Methods, and Materials (1952; 2d ed. 1969), and in J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, vol. 4 (1964). □

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