1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gerhardt, Charles Frédéric

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8980021911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 11 — Gerhardt, Charles Frédéric

GERHARDT, CHARLES FRÉDÉRIC (1816–1856), French chemist, was born at Strassburg on the 21st of August 1816. After attending the gymnasium at Strassburg and the polytechnic at Karlsruhe, he was sent to the school of commerce at Leipzig, where he studied chemistry under Otto Erdmann. Returning home in 1834 he entered his father’s white lead factory, but soon found that business was not to his liking, and after a sharp disagreement with his father enlisted in a cavalry regiment. In a few months military life became equally distasteful, and he purchased his discharge with the assistance of Liebig, with whom, after a short interval at Dresden, he went to study at Giessen in 1836. But his stay at Giessen was also short, and in 1837 he re-entered the factory. Again, however, he quarrelled with his father, and in 1838 went to Paris with introductions from Liebig. There he attended Jean Baptiste Dumas’ lectures and worked with Auguste Cahours (1813–1891) on essential oils, especially cumin, in Michel Eugéne Chevreul’s laboratory, while he earned a precarious living by teaching and making translations of some of Liebig’s writings. In 1841, by the influence of Dumas, he was charged with the duties of the chair of chemistry at the Montpellier faculty of sciences, becoming titular professor in 1844. In 1842 he annoyed his friends in Paris by the matter and manner of a paper on the classification of organic compounds, and in 1845 he and his opinions were the subject of an attack by Liebig, unjustifiable in its personalities but not altogether surprising in view of his wayward disregard of his patron’s advice. The two were reconciled in 1850, but his faculty for disagreeing with his friends did not make it easier for him to get another appointment after resigning the chair at Montpellier in 1851, especially as he was unwilling to go into the provinces. He obtained leave of absence from Montpellier in 1848 and from that year till 1855 resided in Paris. During that period he established an “École de chimie pratique” of which he had great hopes; but these were disappointed, and in 1855, after refusing the offer of a chair of chemistry at the new Zürich Polytechnic in 1854, he accepted the professorships of chemistry at the Faculty of Sciences and the École Polytechnique at Strassburg, where he died on the 19th of August in the following year. Although Gerhardt did some noteworthy experimental work—for instance, his preparation of acid anhydrides in 1852—his contributions to chemistry consist not so much in the discovery of new facts as in the introduction of new ideas that vitalized and organized an inert accumulation of old facts. In particular, with his fellow-worker Auguste Laurent (1807–1853), he did much to reform the methods of chemical formulation by insisting on the distinction between atoms, molecules and equivalents; and in his unitary system, directly opposed to the dualistic doctrines of Berzelius, he combined Dumas’ substitution theory with the old radicle theory and greatly extended the notion of types of structure. His chief works were Précis de chimie organique (1844–1845), and Traité de chimie organique (1853–1856).

See Charles Gerhardt, sa vie, son œuvre, sa correspondance, by his son, Charles Gerhardt, and E. Grimaux (Paris, 1900).