1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wurtz, Charles Adolphe

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WURTZ, CHARLES ADOLPHE (1817–1884), French chemist, was born on the 26th of November 1817 at Wolfisheim, near Strassburg, where his father was Lutheran pastor. When he left the Protestant gymnasium at Strassburg 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 Strassburg faculty of medicine. After graduating there as M.D. in 1843, with a thesis on albumin and fibrin, he studied for a year under J. von Liebig at Giessen, and then went to Paris, where he worked in J. B. A. 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. His laboratory at the École de Médecine was very poor, and to supplement it he opened a private one in 1850 in the Rue Garencière; 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 M. J. B. 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 Études 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 on the 10th of May 1884. Wurtz was an honorary member of almost every scientific society in Europe. He was one of the founders 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 T. J. Pelouze. He was made a senator in 1881.

Wurtz’s first published paper was on hypophosphorous acid (1842), and the continuation of his work on the acids of phosphorus (1845) resulted in the discovery of sulphophosphoric 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 diatomic 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 H. Kolbe resulted in the discovery of many new facts and in a better understanding of the relations between the oxy- and the amido-acids. 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 favour 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 H. Sainte-Claire Deville and M. 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 du monde (1874), La Théorie atomique (1878), Progrès 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 1868, opens with the well-known dictum, “La chimie est une science française.”

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