(b. Hamburg, Germany, 6 December 1835; d. Strasbourg, Alsace [France], 19 November 1910)
Fittig was the son of Johann Andreas Fittig, the director of a private school in Hamburg. He wished to become a teacher, and at the age of sixteen he taught in a private school. In April 1856 he entered the University of Göttingen, intending to become a teacher of natural science, with special attention to botany. The father of one of his school friends planned too open a dye factory and suggested to young Fittig that he might be employed there. Fittig was interested and therefore took up the study of chemistry, which was then taught at Göttingen by Heinrich Limpricht. He soon decided to make this his career and became assistant to Limpricht in the laboratory and to Friedrich Wöhler, who was still lecturing. in 1858 fittig received his doctorate and in 1860 became a privatdozent at the university. He married in 1864 and had three sons and three daughters. His wife died while the children were still young, and he raised them by himself.
In 1866 Fittig became extraordinary professor of chemistry and worked closely with Wöhler. At this time he established a friendship with Friedrich Beilstein. In 1865, with Beilstein and Hans Hübner, he took over the editorship of the Zeitschrift für Chemie und Pharmacie, which had been edited since 1859 by Emile Erlenmeyer but had lost nearly all its subscribers. The three new editors produced a more successful journal under the title Zeitschrift für Chemie, and the venture lasted until 1871. In 1870 Fittig became professor of chemistry at the University of Tübingen, where he remained until he replaced Adolf von Baeyer as professor of chemistry at the University of Strasbourg in 1876. Here he constructed a new chemical laboratory, begun in 1877 and completed in 1882. Fittig served as rector of the university in 1895–1896; he retired in 1902, but continued to publish the results of his researches until nearly the end of his life. During his last years he was made an honorary member of many chemical societies.
Fittig was a prolific author and editor. Besides his activities on the Zeitscrift für Chemie he served as an associate editor of the Annalen der Chemie from 1895 to 1910, wrote a massive textbook of chemistry which appeared in 1871 and went through a number of editions, and edited the tenth edition of Wohler’s textbook of organic chemistry in 1877. His bibliography lists 399 research papers. Fittig trained many chemists who subsequently became well-known, including a number of Englishmen and Americans. Among the best-known of these were William Ramsay, noted for his work on the inert gases, who received his degree in 1872; and Ira Remsen, whose doctorate was conferred in 1870, and who worked on saccharin and was later president of Johns Hopkins University.
Fittig was essentially an experimentalist, with little interest in theoretical chemistry. He was active at a time when the structural theory of organic chemistry was producing its most striking results, and his extensive studies on preparative organic chemistry contributed much to this development. For his doctoral dissertation he studied the action of sodium on anhydrous acetone, in the course of which work he discovered pinacol. This utilization of sodium in an organic reaction probably led him to extend the studies begun by Wurtz on the reaction of sodium with organic halogen compounds. The action of sodium on benzene halides led Fittig to the discovery of a number of homologous aromatic compounds, including biphenyl. This reaction is known to organic chemists as the Wurtz-Fittig reaction. Fittig was led by these studies to the investigation of other aromatic compounds, and he carried out work on mesitylene and its derivatives, naphthalene, and fluorene. He was an independent discoverer of phenanthrene in coal tar. In 1873 he proposed the quinoid structure for benzoquinone, a structure later used to explain the behavior of numerous organic dyestuffs. After 1873 Fittig worked chiefly on unsaturated acids and lactones. The extent and variety of his work helped greatly to advance the progress of organic chemistry during its period of very rapid development, and he is rightly considered one of the outstanding chemists of his day.
I. Orignial Works, A bibliography of the scientific papers of Fittig and his students is given in Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft, 44 (1911), 1838–1401. Among the more important papers are “Ueber das Monobrombenzol,” in Liebigs Annaleen der Chimei, 121 (1862), 361–365, in which the work on the Fittig synthesis is first described; “Ueber das Phenanthren, einen neuen Kohlenwasserstoff im Steinkohlenteer,” in Liebigs Annalen der Chemie, 166 (1873), (361–382, and “Ueber Phenanthren und Abtrhacen,”in Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft, 6 (1873) 167–169, in which the quinone formula is suggested.
II. Secondary Literature. An extensive biography with many personal details is F. Fichter, Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft, 44 (1911), 1339–1383; and a shorter biography is R. M., in journal of the Chemical Society, 99 (1911), 1651–1653.
Henry M. Leicester