Fischer, Hermann Otto Laurenz

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Fischer, Hermann Otto Laurenz

(b. Würzburg, Germany, 16 December 1888; d. Berkeley, California, 9 March 1960),


The son of Emil Fischer, professor of chemistry at the University of Würzburg and famous for his elucidation of the structures of pentoses and hexoses, Hermann was the oldest of three boys. The family moved to Berlin in 1892, when Emil Fischer became director of the Chemical Institute of Berlin University. Fischer attended a Gymnasium in Berlin and decided to become a chemist, while his two brothers chose medical careers. He studied at Cambridge in 1907, then fulfilled his year of military service at Lüneburg. He began his study of chemistry at Berlin and later transferred to Jena. Under Ludwig Knorr’s direction he worked on tautomerism of diketones, preparing the enol form of acetyl acetone. After obtaining the doctorate at Jena, Fischer went to Berlin in 1912 to begin research under his father’s guidance.

By 1912 Emil Fischer had ceased working on carbohydrates, purines, and proteins and turned his attention to depsides and tannins. He put his son to work on the synthesis of lecanoric acid, which occurs naturally in lichens. Hermann succeeded, showing that lecanoric acid is a didepside, p-diorsellinic acid. With the outbreak of World War I, Fischer went to the front in France; both of his brothers joined the military medical service and died in the line of duty. At the end of the war Fischer returned to his father’s laboratory. He married in 1922 and was appointed assistant professor at the Chemical Institute of Berlin University.

With Gerda Dangschat, Fischer elucidated the structure of caffeic acid and chlorogenic acid, the depside of quinic acid. They showed that this depside carries the caffeine in coffee and determines the coffee’s taste after roasting. Beginning an association with Erich Baer that was to continue for twenty-seven years, Fischer started work on the trioses, dihydroxyacetone, and glyceraldehyde. By 1932 Fischer and his co-workers had succeeded in synthesizing the calcium salt of D, L-glyceraldehyde-3-phosphoric acid which Warburg, Embden, and Meyerhof utilized in developing their schemes of alcoholic fermentation and glycolysis.

Fischer accepted a position at the University of Basel in 1932. He continued work on the trioses, with Baer preparing pure D- and L-glyceraldehydes and synthesizing D-fructose and L-sorbose. In Berlin, Gerda Dangschat continued the elucidation of the configuration of quinic acid and shikimic acid, which later proved to be an important intermediate in the formation of aromatic amino acids in bacterial metabolism.

Fischer accepted the invitation of Sir Frederick Banting, who with Charles Best had discovered insulin, to join the staff at the Banting Institute of the University of Toronto. He arrived there in the fall of 1937 with his wife, two sons and daughter, Erich Baer and other assistants, his private laboratory (including the 9,000 reference compounds representative of all of his father’s work), and his father’s library. Fischer continued work on trioses, glycerol derivatives, and glycerides. In his laboratory were Baer, J. M. Grosheintz, Leon Rubin, J. C. Sowden, and Henry Lardy, working on the synthesis of selachyl alcohol, the oxidation of glycols, the condensation of aldoses, the cyclization of glucose into niyoinositol, and the synthesis of biologically interesting organic phosphates.

Fischer became a member of the new department of biochemistry at the University of California in 1948. On 9 October 1952 he dedicated the Emil Fischer Library, containing his father’s books and reference compounds, to the university. Fischer became chairman of the biochemistry department in 1953, holding that position and lecturing on carbohydrates and lipids until his retirement in 1956. Among those who worked with him at Berkeley were D. L. MacDonald, C. E. Ballou, E. A. Kabat, and S. J. Angyal, who investigated sugar disulfones, sugar dialdehydes, inositol derivatives, tetrose phosphates, hexose dialdehydes, D-erythrose-4-phosphate, galactinol, and the confirmational analysis of sugars and inositols. On his retirement Fischer was given space in the Biochemistry and Virus Laboratory, where he conducted research on carbohydrates, assisted by Hans Helmut Baer, from the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg. Starting from Fischer’s observation that a sugar dialdehyde of the pentose series forms, with nitromethane, nitroinositols, Baer worked out the syntheses of 3-amino-3-deoxy-D-ribose and 3-amino-3-deoxy-D-mannose.

Fischer was a member of many professional societies, recipient of the Sugar Research Award of the American Chemical Society in 1949 and of the Adolf von Baeyer Memorial Gold Medal from the Society of German Chemists in 1955, and was named professor emeritus by the University of California in 1956.


For a short autobiography with portrait, see Hermann O. L. Fischer, “Fifty Years ‘Synthetiker’ in the Service of Biochemistry,” in Annual Review of Biochemistry, 29 (1960), 1–14. Early papers on carbomethoxy derivatives of acids written with Emil Fischer can be found in Berichte der Deutschen Chemischen Gesellschaft, 46 (1913), 1138–1148, 2659–2664; and 47 (1914), 505–512, 768–780. Fischer and Dangschat’s work on quinic acid, shikimic acid, and their derivatives is reported in papers found in Naturwissenschaften, 19 (1931), 310–311; Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft, 65B (1932), 1009–1031, 1037–1040; and Helvetica chimica acta, 17 (1934), 1196–1200, 1200–1207; and 18 (1935), 1204–1206, 1206–1213. Some of the papers written in collaboration with Erich Baer and others on the trioses, dihydroxyacetone and glyceraldehyde, and their derivatives can be found in Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft, 60B (1927), 479- 485; 63B (1930), 1732–1744, 1744–1748, 1749–1753; 65B (1932), 337–345, 345–352; Helvetica chimica acta, 16 (1933), 534–547; 17 (1934), 622–632; 18 (1935), 514–521, 1079–1087; 19 (1936), 519–532; 20 (1937), 1213–1226, 1226–1236; Naturwissenchaften, 25 (1937), 588–589, 589; and Chemical Reviews, 29 (1941), 287–316.

Fischer published a review of his investigations of chemical and biological relationships between hexoses and inositols in Harvey Lectures, 40 (1944–1945), 156–178; and a review of his chemical synthesis of intermediate products of sugar metabolism in Angewandte Chemie, 69 (1957), 413–419.

A. Albert Baker Jr.