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Meyer, Kurt Heinrich


(b. Dorpat Russia, 29 September 1883; d. Menton, France, 14 April 1952).

organic chemistry.

Meyer’s father, Hans Horst Meyer, was a pharmacologist who also taught at the German-speaking University of Dorpat. Meyer was educated mainly in Germany and studied chemistry at the universities of Marburg, Freiburg, and Leipzig: among his teachers were Hanizsch and Ostwald. After receiving the doctorate in 1907, he traveled for a year to America, to Rutherford’s department of physics at Manchester, and to Ramsay’s department of chemistry at London; he then settled in Munich, where the school of organic chemistry was led by Adolf von Baeyer. There Meyer carried out the studies on keto-enol tautomerism that first made his reputation, including the determination by a simple titration of the amount of enol in samples of ethyl acetoacetate. He also discovered some new coupling reactions of diazonium salts and worked on a possible industrial synthesis of formamide from carbon monoxide and ammonia and, with F. Bergius, on the large-scale hydrolysis of chlorobenzene to phenol.

Meyer spent three years on war service as an artillery officer but was recalled in 1917 to work with Haber on chemical warfare. When peace came, he returned to Munich, where organic chemistry was under Willstätter’s direction, and returned to his previous interests. Notably, with H. Hopff he isolated the pure enol form of ethyl acetoacetate by “aseptic distillation,” avoiding the presence of any impurities that might catalyze the conversion to the keto form.

In 1921 Meyer left academic life to become director of the headquarters laboratories of the firm of Badische Anilin- und Sodafabrik (BASF) at Ludwigshafen. He organized a large and active research group whose interests, although wide, were concerned mainly with dyeing and dyestuffs. His own interests became increasingly centered on the chemistry of natural high polymers, a study to which he recruited the young physical chemist Herman Francis Mark. Their results, published in 1930, were a landmark in the development of the subject. In a lucid survey of naturally occurring organic polymers (cellulose, starch, proteins, rubber) the authors, although giving due weight to the then fashionable theory of “small building blocks/’ found themselves more in sympathy with the concept of true macromolecules, which was being vigorously promoted by Staudinger.

Especially after the incorporation of BASF into the huge I. G. Farbenindustrie complex in 1926, Meyer found that his research work was increasingly hindered by the cares of administration. The political situation in Germany also caused him justifiable anxiety, and in 1932 he left the country to take the chair of inorganic and organic chemistry at the University of Geneva. Although he had to accustom himself to lecturing in French, a language with which he was unfamiliar, he was a successful teacher and again built up a fine research school. With his collaborators (notably A. J. A. van der Wyk) Meyer continued his studies of cellulose and chitin, the permeability of synthetic membranes, and the thermodynamics of large molecules in solution; and developed a theory of muscle contraction by analogy with the contraction of rubber. Investigation of the structure of amylopectin, the branched-chain constituent of starch, led to extensive work on the crystallization, characterization, and specificity of enzymes, a subject that occupied his last years. Meyer died suddenly while on holiday.


I. Original Works. Meyer’s main work is Der Aufbau der hochpolymeren organischen Naturstoffe (Leipzig, 1930), written with H. F, Mark. The 2nd ed. (Leipzig, 1940) was in 2 vols., one by Meyer, dealing with the chemical aspects of the subject, and the other by Mark, concerned with physics. Meyer’s volume was trans, into English by L. E. R. Picken and published as Natural and Synthetic High Polymers (New York, 1942; 2nd ed., 1950). Meyer wrote many scientific papers, usually with collaborators. A complete list of works is in Poggendorff, V, 843–844, VI, 1717, and VIIa, 3, 283–285.

II. Secondary Literature. There is a memorial article by R. Jeanloz in Advances in Carbohydrate Chemistry, 11 (1956), xiii–xviii, with portrait. The more important obituary notices include H. Mark, in Angewandte Chemie, 64 (1952), 521-523; L. E. R. Picken, in Nature169 (1952), 820; and A. J. A. van der Wyk, in Helvetica chimica acta, 35 (1952), 1418–1422.

W. V. Farrar

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