Wurtz, Adolphe

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(b. Wolfisheim, near Strasbourg, France, 26 November 1817;

d. Paris, France, 12 May 1884), chemistry. For the original article on Wurtz see DSB, vol. 14.

Wurtz’s research spanned the entire science of chemistry and was notable for its volume, importance, and influence; moreover, from about 1854 until his death he was the principal French advocate of atomic-molecular theory and structural organic chemistry. Taking advantage of scholarship that has appeared subsequent to the original DSB article, the author of this postscript intends to provide a fuller assessment of Wurtz’s contributions to science, particularly his advocacy for state support of French science and his ardent defense of atomistic ideas.

Early Career. Although Wurtz was French, his development as a scientist was crucially shaped by his association with Justus von Liebig in Giessen, with whom he spent the summer semester of 1842, prior to the award of his MD degree from the Faculty of Medicine in Strasbourg. (Due to his Alsatian roots, Wurtz was fluent in German, unusual for French chemists at this time.) He was equally influenced by his association with Jean-Baptiste Dumas, whom he met when he traveled from Strasbourg to Paris in 1844 and into whose private laboratory (unconnected with Dumas’s position in the Paris Faculty of Medicine) he soon was accepted. Wurtz became agrégé in the Faculty of Medicine in 1847; he was suppléant (substitute lecturer) for Dumas from 1849 and then replaced him as professor of pharmacy and organic chemistry in February 1853. In December 1853 this position was abolished; a new professorship of organic and mineral chemistry was created in the faculty, and Wurtz was given this chair instead. In 1875, following lobbying by Wurtz and his allies, he was appointed to a newly created chair for organic chemistry in the Sorbonne. (Some of the information in this paragraph differs slightly from the material in the original DSB article.)

Wurtz’s personal relationship with the militant would-be reformer of the science of chemistry, Charles Gerhardt, was always difficult, even though they were fellow Strasbourgeois and almost exact contemporaries. Nonetheless, he converted wholeheartedly to many of Gerhardt’s leading ideas shortly before the latter’s early

death in 1856. Wurtz’s work was instrumental in the rise of valence theory and highly influential on August Kekulé’s formulation in 1858 of the principles of what became known as the theory of chemical structure. Surprisingly, Wurtz strongly championed Kekulé against the claim by Archibald Scott Couper of having independently developed structure theory, even though Couper had worked in his own laboratory.

Educator and Advocate. Couper was one of probably more than three hundred of Wurtz’s laboratory students; like Couper, most of his students were either foreign or French-Alsatian. Wurtz’s laboratory, attached to the Faculty of Medicine, was the site of a preeminent laboratory-based teaching/research school and was internationally recognized as providing the finest training for elite research chemists. For all that, it was not officially a part of the faculty at all; Wurtz was forced to run it as a private venture, while his superiors turned a blind eye to the business. The situation highlighted a deficiency of the French system of higher education in science during the nineteenth century, the near absence of properly state-supported academic laboratory facilities. Wurtz strove energetically over his entire career to urge the government to address the problem, though with only partial success. For nine years (1866–1875), Wurtz was an effective dean of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Paris, working effectively not only for the welfare of the school, its students and faculty, but also for principles of academic freedom and the struggle for women to gain entry into French academic life.

Leading a laboratory-based school frequented largely by foreigners and speaking several European languages fluently, Wurtz became a principal conduit for foreign theories into French scientific culture. After about 1854 Wurtz was an ardent advocate of the atomic theory and of a school of organic chemistry founded upon Kekulé’s (and others’) molecular-structural ideas; indeed, he was the acknowledged leader of the atomist/structuralist camp in France. But he was opposed by those who firmly regarded atomic and structural theories as insecure and hypothetical, such as Marcellin Berthelot, Henri Sainte-Claire Deville, and Louis Troost, and by those who were dogmatically uninterested in taking any position on such questions, such as Dumas, Antoine-Jérome Balard, and Edmond Frémy. Unfortunately for Wurtz, until 1875 the six scientists just named controlled instruction in chemistry in all of the important Parisian academic institutions: the Sorbonne, the Collège de France, the École Polytechnique, the École Normale, and the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle. Wurtz was well isolated at the Faculty of Medicine, where pure research in a physical science such as chemistry could never be anything more than an ancillary study. One consequence was that French chemistry continued to use the so-called equivalent-weight system of formulas (founded on, e.g., H = 1, C = 6, O = 8, and S =16) rather than the atomic weight system that had become standard in most other European countries.

Wurtz’s 1875 appointment to the Sorbonne as a new professor of organic chemistry finally created a forum in which Parisian students could become familiar with modernist atomic/structural chemical theory, but this circumstance had only a limited immediate influence on the course of French chemistry. Despite all of Wurtz’s efforts, a powerful anti-atomist current continued until the turn of the twentieth century, at which time most French chemists finally adopted atomic weights, the atomic theory, and the theory of chemical structure.


Carneiro, Ana. The Research School of Chemistry of Adolphe Wurtz, 1853–1884. PhD diss., University of Kent, Canterbury, U.K., 1992.

———. “Adolphe Wurtz and the Atomism Controversy.” Ambix 40, no. 2 (1993): 75–95.

Carneiro, Ana, and Natalie Pigeard. “Chimistes alsaciens à Paris au 19ème siècle: un réseau, une école?” Annals of Science 54, no. 6 (1997): 533–546.

Fox, Robert. The Culture of Science in France, 1700–1900. Aldershot, U.K.: Variorum, 1992.

Fox, Robert, and George Weisz, eds. The Organization of Science and Technology in France, 1808–1914. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Pigeard, Natalie. “L’oeuvre du chimiste Charles Adolphe Wurtz (1817–1884).” Thèse de maîtrise, Université de Paris X Nanterre, 1993. ———. “Charles Adolphe Wurtz, doyen de L’ École de Médecine de Paris (1866–1875),” PhD thesis, Université de Paris X Nanterre, 2007.

Rocke, Alan J. “History and Science, History of Science: Adolphe Wurtz and the Renovation of the Academic Professions in France.” Ambix 41, no. 11 (1994): 20–32.

———. Nationalizing Science: Adolphe Wurtz and the Battle for French Chemistry. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.

Alan J. Rocke