Schiff, Hugo Josef

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(b. Frankfurt, Germany, 26 April 1834; d. Florence, Italy, 8 September 1915)


Schiff, the last surviving representative of the Karlsruhe Congress (1860), was the brother of the distinguished physiologist Moritz Schiff. He studied under Wöhler at Göttingen and was awarded the doctorate in 1857. Shortly thereafter he left Germany because of his strong liberal views and became Privatdozent at the University of Bern. In 1863 the physicist Carlo Matteuccis invited Schiff to Florence. He taught chemistry at the Museo di Stroria Naturale until 1876, when he became professor of general chemistry at the University of Turin. In 1879 he returned to Florence to assume the chair of chemistry at the Istituto di Studi Superiori, remaining there for the rest of his life.

In addition to his prolific research, Schiff devoted himself to disseminating chemical knowledge and to continuing the tradition represented by Berzelius and Wöhler, on whose teaching methods he modeled his own. At Florence he transformed the chemistry laboratory into one of the best in Europe. In 1871, with Cannizzaro and Francesco Selmi, he founded the journal Gazzetta chimica italiana. Schiff wrote the widely used Introduzione allo studio della chimica (1876) and also contributed many articles to Francesco Selmi’s Enciclopedia di chimica (1868–1883). A man of many interests, he also published writings in history and literary criticism.

Schiff’s chemical studies were predominantly in organic chemistry. His earliest noteworthy work was his isolation and investigation in 1857 of thionyl chloride from the action of sulfur dioxide on phosphorus pentachloride. In 1864 he discovered the condensation products of aldehydes and amines, later known as “Schiff bases”. In 1866 Schiff introduced the fuchsine test for aldehydes, in which decolorized fuchsine regains its color in the presence of aldehydes, the color reaction being specific for aldehydes and serving to distinguish them from ketones. His studies on the color bases derived from furfural led to his discovery of the sensitive xylidine’acetic acid reagent for furfural.

Schiff published many papers on the constitution of natural glucosides, examining esculin, amygdalin, arbutin, helicin, and phlorizin. By fusing salicin with benzoic anhydride, he synthesized populin, a glucoside present in the bark and leaves of aspen trees. Other researches dealt with metal’ammonium compounds, the biuret reaction, esters of boric acid, and the constitution of tannins. A resourceful experimentalist, Schiff in 1866 devised the nitrometer that bears his name, an improved version of the Dumas method for the determination of nitrogen.

Before Emil Fischer, Schiff attempted to obtain high’molecular’weight polymers of amino acids having the properties of proteins. By condensing aspartic acid molecules, he prepared tetraaspartic and octoaspartic acids. His formulas did not, however, include the peptide linkages that Fischer later proposed to explain how amino acid molecules were joined in proteins.


I. Original Works. Schiff’s books include Untersuchungen über metallhaltige Anilinderivate und über die Bildung des Anilinroths (Berlin, 1864);Introduzione allo studio della chimicu (Turin, 1876); and Empirismo e metodo nell’ applicazione di chimica alle scienze naturale e biologiche (Turin, 1877). The more important of his almost 300 published papers include “Über die Einwirkung des Phosphorsuperchlorides auf einige anorganische Säuren”. in Justus Liebigs Annalen der Chemie. 102 (1857), 111–118; “Eine neue Reihe organischer Basen”, ibid., 131 (1864), 118–119; “Eine neue Reihe organischer Diamine”, ibid., 140 (1866), 92–137; “Zur Azotometrie”, in Zeitschrift fur analytische Chemie, 7 (1868), 430–432: “Untersuchungen über Salicinderivate”, in Justus Liebigs Annalen der Chemie, 150 (1869), 193–200; and 154 (1870), 1–39; “Zur Stickstoffbestimmung”, in Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft, 13 (1880), 885–887; “Uber Polyaspartsäuren”, ibid., 30 (1897), 2449–2459; and “Intorno a composti poliaspartici”, in Gazzetta chimica italiana. 28 , pt. 1 (1898), 49–64; 29 , pt. 1 (1899), 319–340; and 30 .pt. 1 (1900), 8–25.

II. Secondary Literature. For accounts of Schiff’s life and work, see M. Betti, in Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft, 48 (1915), 1566–1567; and Journal of the Chemical Society, 109 (1916), 424–428; I. Guareschi, in Atti dell’ Accademia delle scienze (Turin), 52 (1917), 333–351; and William McPerson, in Science, 43 (1916), 921–922.

Albert B. Costa