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Charles-Adolphe Wurtz


Adolphe Wurtz (November 26, 1817 - May 10, 1884) was a French chemist. He is perhaps best remembered by chemists for the Wurtz reaction, to form carbon-carbon bonds by reacting alkyl halides with sodium, and for his discoveries of ethylamine and ethylene glycol. Wurtz was also an influential writer and educator.



Adolphe Wurtz (he never used the name "Charles") was born at Wolfisheim, near Strasbourg, where his father was Lutheran pastor. When he left the Protestant gymnasium at Strasbourg in 1834, his father allowed him to study medicine as next best to theology. He devoted himself specially to the chemical side of his profession with such success that in 1839 he was appointed Chef des travaux chimiques at the Strasbourg faculty of medicine. In the summer of 1842 he studied under Justus von Liebig at the University of Giessen. After graduating from Strasbourg as M.D. in 1843, with a thesis on albumin and fibrin, he went to Paris, where he worked in Jean Baptiste Dumas's private laboratory. In 1845 he became assistant to Dumas at the École de Médecine, and four years later began to give lectures on organic chemistry in his place (Puerto Rican independence leader Ramón Emeterio Betances was once his student). His laboratory at the Ecole de Médecine was very poor, and to supplement it he opened a private one in 1850 in the Rue Garanciere; but soon afterwards the house was sold, and the laboratory had to be abandoned. In 1850 he received the professorship of chemistry at the new Institut Agronomique at Versailles, but the Institut was abolished in 1852. In the following year the chair of organic chemistry at the faculty of medicine became vacant by the resignation of Dumas and the chair of mineral chemistry and toxicology by the death of Mathieu Orfila. The two were united, and Wurtz appointed to the new post. In 1866 he undertook the duties of dean of the faculty of medicine. In this position. he exerted himself to secure the rearrangement and reconstruction of the buildings devoted to scientific instruction, urging that in the provision of properly equipped teaching laboratories France was much behind Germany (see his report Les Hautes Etudes pratiques dans les universités allemandes, 1870).

In 1875, resigning the office of dean but retaining the title of honorary dean, he became the first occupant of the chair of organic chemistry, which he induced the government to establish at the Sorbonne; but he had great difficulty in obtaining an adequate laboratory, and the building ultimately provided was not opened until after his death, which happened at Paris.

Wurtz was an honorary member of almost every scientific society in Europe. He was the principal founder of the Paris Chemical Society (1858), was its first secretary and thrice served as its president. In 1880 he was vice-president and in 1881 president of the Academy, which he entered in 1867 in succession to Théophile-Jules Pelouze. In 1881, Wurtz was elected life senator.

Scientific and academic work

Wurtz's first published paper was on hypophosphorous acid (1841), and the continuation of his work on the acids of phosphorus (1845) resulted in the discovery of suiphophosphoric acid and phosphorus oxychloride, as well as of copper hydride. But his original work was mainly in the domain of organic chemistry. Investigation of the cyanic ethers (1848) yielded a class of substances which opened out a new field in organic chemistry, for, by treating those ethers with caustic potash, he obtained methylamine, the simplest organic derivative of ammonia (1849), and later (1851) the compound ureas. In 1855, reviewing the various substances that had been obtained from glycerin, he reached the conclusion that glycerin is a body of alcoholic nature formed on the type of three molecules of water, as common alcohol is on that of one, and was thus led (1856) to the discovery of the glycols or diatornic alcohols, bodies similarly related to the double water type. This discovery he worked out very thoroughly in investigations of ethylene oxide and the polyethylene alcohols. The oxidation of the glycols led him to homologues of lactic acid, and a controversy about the constitution of the latter with Adolph Wilhelm Hermann Kolbe resulted in the discovery of many new facts and in a better understanding of the relations between the oxyand the amido-acids. In 1855 he published work on what is now known as the Wurtz reaction.

In 1867 Wurtz prepared neurine synthetically by the action of trimethylamine on glycol-chlorhydrin, and in 1872 he discovered aldol, pointing out its double character as at once an alcohol and an aldehyde.

In addition to this list of some of the new substances he prepared, reference may be made to his work on abnormal vapour densities. While working on the olefines he noticed that a change takes place in the density of the vapour of amylene hydrochloride, hydrobromide, &c, as the temperature is increased, and in the gradual passage from a gas of approximately normal density to one of half-normal density he saw a powerful argument in favor of the view that abnormal vapour densities, such as are exhibited by sal-ammoniac or phosphorus pentachloride. are to be explained by dissociation. From 1865 onwards he treated this question in several papers, and in particular maintained the dissociation of vapour of chloral hydrate, in opposition to Etienne Henri Sainte-Claire Deville and Marcellin Berthelot.

For twenty-one years (1852-1872) Wurtz published in the Annales de chimie et de physique abstracts of chemical work done out of France. The publication of his great Dictionnaire de chimie pure et appliquée, in which he was assisted by many other French chemists, was begun in 1869 and finished in 1878; two supplementary volumes were issued 1880-1886, and in 1892 the publication of a second supplement was begun. Among his books are Chimie médicale (1864), Leçons élémentaires de chimie moderne (1867), Théorie des atomes dans la conception générale du monde (1874), La Théorie atomique (1878), Progrés de l'industrie des matières colorantes artificielles (1876) and Traité de chimie biologique (1880-1885). His Histoire des doctrines chimiques, the introductory discourse to his Dictionnaire, but published separately in 1869, opens with the well-known dictum, La chimie est une science française. The sentence is less chauvinistic than it appears; he intended to refer only to the birth of chemistry under the great Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, not French national ownership of the science.

Puerto Rican independence leader, surgeon and Légion d'honneur laureate, Ramón Emeterio Betances, was one of his prominent students. [1]

See also

Further reading

  • For Wurtz's life and work, with a list of his publications, see Charles Friedel's memoir in the Bulletin de la Societe Chimique (1885); also August Wilhelm von Hofmann in the Ber. deut. chem. Gesellsch. (1887), reprinted in vol. iii. of his Zur Erinnerung an vorangegangene Freunde (1888).


  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
  • Rocke, Alan J. (2001). Nationalizing Science: Adolphe Wurtz and the Battle for French Chemistry. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 443. ISBN 0-262-18204-1. 
  • The Atomic Theory, by A. Wurtz (1881) New York: Appleton and Company (scanned copy)
  • Elements of Modern Chemistry, by A. Wurtz (1899) Philadelphia: Lippincott and Company (scanned copy of the third American edition; translated by W. H. Greene)
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Charles-Adolphe_Wurtz". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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