(b. Trencsén, Hungary [now Trenčīn, Czechoslolvakia], 26 October 1883; d. Budapest, Hungary, 24 July 1956)
Zemplén was the son of János Zemplén a postal employee and of Janka Wittlin. His older brother Viktor was appointed professor of physics at the Technical University of Budapest in 1913 at the age of thirty-three, but his career was cut short three years later by his death in World War I, Zemplén’s ability is reflected in his having been named professor at the Technical University in 1913-when he was only twenty-nine. With his appointment the university created the first institute for organic chemistry in Hungary.
After attending secondary school in Fiume,Zemplen studied chemistry, physics, and biology at the University of Budapest, earning the doctorate in physics in 1904. He then became an assistant in chemistry at the Mining and Forestry Academy of Selmec, where he conducted analytic studies of natural substances. In 1909 Zemplen obtained a three-year scholarship; and until 1912 he worked in Emil Fischer’s laboratory in Berlin, then one of the most famous centers for the study of organic chemistry. He worked on the synthesis of amino acids and of the synthetic disaccharide cellobiose, publishing several papers on these topics in collaboration with Fischer.
Appointed professor in 1913, Zemplén began a period of intense, uninterrupted research and also trained many students who later achived distinction as organic chemists. His principal field of research was the carbohydrates. His most important rresults were the deactyolatioin of sugar acetates with sodium methoxide (Zemplén’s saponification)and the successive (Zemplén) degradatioin of sugars to derivatives containing increasingly less carbon-which at the time was considered the best method for establishing the structure of the disacharides. Zemplén also devised the so-cakked mercury acetate catalytic method forthe production of oligoosaccharides. His contributions to organic chemistry were printed in more than 200 publications most of which appeared in German in Berichte der Deuytschen chemischen Gesellschaft
Zemplén’s successful career earned him membership in many scientific societies. His life was not, however, free from personal tragedy. Upon returning home from a year spent at the University of Washington (1947), he fell ill with cancer and spent his remaining years bedridden.
A complete list of Zemplén’s publications is in an obiturary, in German, by R.Bognar, in Acta chimica Academiae scientiarum hungaricae19 (1959),121. See also L.Mora,Géza Zemplen,1883-1956(Budapest, 1974),with complete bibliography, “The Degradation of Sugars,” in Berichte der Deuytschen chemischen Gesellschaft59 (1926),125; and “The Mercury Acetate Method,” ibid62 (1929), 990.