Nef, John Ulric

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(b. Herisau, Switzerland, 14 June 1862; d. Carmel, California, 13 August 1915), chemistry.

Nef, a pioneer in the transfer of the German university traditions in organic chemistry to the United States, immigrated with his parents to Housatonic, Massachusetts, in 1866. He graduated from Harvard University with honors, in 1884, and received from the university a traveling fellowship that enabled him to obtain the Ph.D. under Adolf von Baeyer at Munich in 1886. He remained as a postdoctoral student for one year and later was instrumental in establishing postdoctoral fellowship study in the United States. He held academic positions at Purdue (1887–1889), Clark (1889–1892), and Chicago (1892–1915) universities.

Nef was a great experimentalist and, as a pioneer in theoretical organic chemistry, contributed new methods to synthetic organic chemistry, in which three separate reactions are termed “Nef reactions.” He studied the apparently bivalent carbon compounds and their dissociation. His theoretical work clearly contains the germs of the present concepts of free radicals, transition states, and polymerization. He was concerned with all products formed in an organic reaction and not just with the desired end product.

The later work of Nef and his students at Chicago was concerned with the action of alkali and alkaline oxidizing agents on the sugars. They isolated and characterized various types of saccharinic acids and used enolization and subsequent carbonyl migrations to interpret the alkaline transformations and degradations of the sugars. They discovered the two types of aldonolactones.

Nef’s students helped to establish graduate research in organic chemistry in the universities of the American Middle West. An intense individual, Nef impressed his personality and aims on his students, who strove to continue and extend his work.


A listing of Nef’s writings is in Poggendorff, IV, 1060–1061, and V, 896; see also the biography by Wolfrom (1960).

Two biographies, both by M. L. Wolfrom, are in Eduard Farber, ed., Great Chemists (New York, 1931); and Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences,34 (1960), 204–227.

M. L. Wolfrom