Swarts, Frédéric Jean Edmond

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(b. Ixelles, Belgium, 2 September 1866; d. Ghent, Belgium, 6 September 1940)


Frédéric Swarts entered the University of Ghent in 1883 and received doctorates in chemistry (1889) and medicine (1891). His father, Théodore Swarts had succeeded Kekulé as professor of chemistry at the university in 1871. The younger Swarts spent his entire professional career at Ghent, first as répétiteur and then, on his father’s retirement in 1903, as professor of chemistry. He was a member of the Académie Royale des Sciences des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, which awarded him its Gold Medal, corresponding member of the Institut de France, president of the Institut International de Chimie Solvay, and charter member and vice-president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

After the discovery of fluorine, few of its compounds had been prepared because of the reactivity and toxicity of the element. Swarts was among the first to study organic fluorine compounds. Unable to use methods of direct fluorination because of the violence of the reactions, he developed a double decomposition process using inorganic fluorides, especially antimony trifluoride and mercurous fluoride, and organic polyhalides, where the halogen atoms are on the same carbon atom (the Swarts reaction, 1892). The first synthesis of an organic fluorine compound was trichlorofluoromethane (1891). Swarts synthesized many aliphatic chlorofluoro and bromofluoro derivatives of hydrocarbons, alcohols, and acids. In 1922 he prepared trifluoroacetic acid, the strongest organic acid known.

The aliphatic chlorofluoro compounds became the first fluorochemicals to be used commercially after Thomas Midgley and A. L. Henne in 1930, using a modified Swarts reaction, prepared the group of fluorinated methanes and ethanes known as the Freons.

Swarts made the first extensive investigations of organic-fluorine compounds. He coupled his syntheses of organic fluorine compounds with physicochemical studies and determined their heats of combustion, molecular refractions, and viscosities, proving that fluorinated organic compounds have weaker intermolecular forces than the corresponding nonfluorinated compounds.


I. Original Works. Important papers include “Sur I’acide fluoracétique,” in Bulletin de l’Académie royale de Belgique. Classe des sciences, 31 (1896), 675–688; “Sur quelques dérivés flourés du toluol,” ibid., 35 (1898), 375–420; “Contribution à l’étude des combinaisons organiques du fluor,” in Mémoires couronnés et mémoires publiés par l’Académie royal des sciences, des lettres et des beaux-arts de Belgique, 61 no.4 (1901–1902); “Investigations thermochimiques des combinaisons organiques du fluor,” in Journal de chimie physique et de physico-chimie biologique, 17 (1919), 3–70; and “Sur I’acide trifluoracétique,” in Bulletin . . ., 8 (1922), 343–370.

II. Secondary Literature. Accounts of the life and work of Swarts are “Frédéric Swarts,”in Bulletin. Société chimique de Belgique, 49 (1940), 33–35; Marcel Delépine, “Frédéric-Jean Edmond Swarts, 2 Septembre 1866–6 Septembre 1940,”in Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences, 212 (1941), 1057–1059; Jean Timmermanns, “Frédèric Swarts (1866–1940),”in Journal of the Chemical Society (1946), 559–560; and George B. Kauffman, “Frédéric Swarts: Pioneer in Organic Fluorine Chemistry,”in Journal of Chemical Education, 32 (1955), 301–303.

Albert B. Costa