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Ciamician, Giacomo Luigi

Ciamician, Giacomo Luigi

(b. Trieste, Italy, 27 August 1857; d. Bologna, Italy, 2 January 1922),


Ciamician was of Armenian descent and studied at Vienna and Giessen, where he received the Ph.D. in 1880. He became Cannizzaro’s assistant at the University of Rome (1880) and professor of general chemistry at Padua (1887) and then at Bologna (1889). The excellence and importance of his work was such that Emil Fischer several times proposed him for the Nobel Prize.

Ciamician’s earliest researches (1877–1880), conducted while he was still a student in Vienna, were in spectroscopy. His first organic chemical studies were on the components of natural resins. In 1880 he began a lengthy investigation of the chemistry of pyrrole and related compounds that resulted in eighty papers and lasted until 1905. He established the nature of pyrrole as a secondary amine and clarified its ring structure by synthesizing it from succinimide. Ciamician prepared many derivatives of pyrrole, pyrroline, and pyrrolidine, including the synthesis of iodol (tetraiodopyrrole), which proved to have therapeutic use as a substitute for iodoform.

Ciamician was one of the founders of photochemistry, making the first systematic study of the behavior of organic compounds toward light. Between 1900 and 1915 Ciamician and his assistant Paolo Silber published fifty photochemical papers. Among the many photochemical reactions that he discovered were the reciprocal oxidation-reduction of alcohols and carbonyl compounds, the hydrolysis of cyclic ketones into fatty acids and unsaturated aldehydes, the condensation of hydrocyanic acid with carbonyl compounds, the polymerization of unsaturated compounds, and numerous photochemical syntheses. Ciamician was also interested in the applications of photochemistry and discussed the potentialities of the utilization of solar energy in desert regions and in the large-scale photochemical syntheses of valuable plant substances.

Another important area of Ciamician’s investigation was plant chemistry. From 1888 to 1899 he determined the constitution of several essential oils: eugenol, safrole, and apiole from the oils of cloves, sassafras, and parsley and celery, respectively. During his photochemical studies he became convinced that the future of organic chemistry lay in its application to biology. From 1908 to 1922 Ciamician, in collaboration with Ciro Ravenna, professor of agricultural chemistry at Pisa, published twenty-one papers on the origin and function of organic substances in plants. They achieved the synthesis of glycosides in plants by inoculating them with the proper raw materials. Injection of plants with amino acids stimulated the production of alkaloids. The two chemists made many studies of the influence of organic compounds on the development of plants. They found that inoculation of plants with alkaloids such as caffeine and theobromine increased the activity of chlorophyll and led to the overproduction of starch. Ciamician and Ravenna concluded that alkaloids were not excretory products of plants but had a function similar to that of hormones in animals.


I. Original Works. Ciamician’s published writings include two books, I problemi chimici del nuovo secolo (Bologna, 1903; 2nd ed., Bologna, 1905) and La chimica organica negli organismi (Bologna, 1908). He collected the results of his investigations on the chemistry of pyrrole in “Il pirrolo e i suoi derivate,” in Atti della Reale Accademia dei Lincei. Memorie, Classe di scienze fisiche, mathematiche e naturali, 4 (1887), 274–377. A later summary, “Über die Entwicklung der Chemie des Pyrrols im letzten Vierteljahrhundert,” is in Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft, 37 (1904), 4200–4255. Most of the photochemical papers appeared in Berichte…, under the title “Chemische Lichtwirkungen,” between 1901 and 1915. There are two convenient reviews of this work: “Sur les actions chimiques de la lumière,” in Bulletin de la Société chimique de France, 4th ser., 3–4 (1908), i-xxvii, and “Actions chimiques de la lumière,” in Annales de chimie et de physique, 8th ser., 16 (1909), 474–520, written with Paolo Silber. An address delivered in New York on the potential uses of photochemistry, “La photochimica dell’avenire,” appears in both Italian and English in Transactions. Eighth International Congress of Applied Chemistry (Washington, D.C.), 28 (1912), 135–168. For his work on essential oils see “Studi sui principii aromatici dell’ essenza di sedano,” in Gazzetta chimica italiana, 28 , pt. 1 (1898), 438–481, written with Paolo Silber. Many of the papers on the syntheses and functions of organic substances in plants are in Gazzetta chimica italiana from 1917 to 1922. A summary of the work with alkaloids, “La genèse de alcaloides dans les plantes,” is in Annales de chimie et de physique, 8th ser., 25 (1912), 404–421, written with Ciro Ravenna.

II. Secondary Literature. Among the many Italian studies on the life and work of Ciamician are Giuseppi Bruni, “Giacomo Ciamician,” in Rendiconti delle sessioni della Reale Accademia della scienze dell’Istituto di Bologna, 27 (1922–1923), supp.; Luigi Mascarelli, Giacomo Ciamician (Turin, 1922); Giuseppe Plancher, “Giacomo Ciamician,” in Gazzetta chimica italiana, 54 (1924), 3–22; and Guido Timeus, In memoria di Giacomo Ciamician (Trieste, 1925). There are several informative essays in other languages, including René Fabré, “Notice sur Giacomo Ciamician,” in Bulletin de la Société chimique de France, 4th ser., 41 (1927), 1562–1566, trans. by Eduard Farber in Eduard Farber, ed., Great Chemists (New York, 1961), pp. 1085–1092; Paul Jacobson, “Giacomo Ciamician,” in Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft, 55A (1922), 19–20; William McPherson, “Giacomo Ciamician 1857–1922,” in Journal of the American Chemical Society, 44 (1922), 101–106; Raffaelo Nasini, “Giacomo Luigi Ciamician,” in Journal of the Chemical Society (London), 129 (1926), 996–1004; and T. E. Thorpe, “Prof. Giacomo Ciamician,” in Nature, 109 (1922), 245–246.

Albert B. Costa

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