Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/November 1882/Sketch of Charles Adolphe Wurtz

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CHARLES ADOLPHE WURTZ, President of the French Academy of Sciences, is one of the recognized leaders of modern chemistry. Much of his work is regarded as of the first importance in connection with chemical theory, and he is justly considered one of the chief pioneers of modern organic chemistry.

Professor Wurtz was born in Strasburg, November 26, 1817, and was taught in his earlier studies at the Protestant Gymnasium in that city. He afterward studied in the Medical Faculty of Strasburg, where he was chief of the chemical department from 1839 to 1844, and received his degree in 1843. He began his chemical career as an assistant to Dumas. Having come to Paris, he was made preparateur to the course of organic chemistry of the Faculty in 1845. He ward filled the position of chief of the chemical department in the School of Arts and Manufactures from 1846 to 1851, and was made a fellow in 1846. He gained his first independent position in 1851, as professor in the Agricultural Institute at Versailles. After the death of Orfila, in 1853, and the retirement of Dumas, in 1854, the chairs which they had filled were united in the chair of Medical Chemistry, and Professor Wurtz was made its occupant. In 1866 he became Dean of the Medical Faculty, and gained much credit as such by his firm and moderate course during the troubles with the students in 1867 and 1868, when the best professors in the faculty were denounced to the Senate. He resigned this office in April, 1875, and was appointed, in the following August, Professor of Organic Chemistry in the Faculty of Sciences. He has also been a member of the hygienic committee, a member and secretary of the Chemical Society, and a member of the Philomathic Society.

The chemical researches of Professor Wurtz have been numerous, original, and important. The Royal Society's catalogue contains a list of seventy-three titles to papers which were published by him previous to 1864. The publication of his investigations was begun in 1842, with a paper on the constitution of the hypophosphites. This was followed by researches on phosphorous acid, sulpho-phosphoric acid, etc., which greatly added to our knowledge of the phosphorus compounds. It was during his experiments on the hypophosphites that he discovered the hydride of copper, a substance which derives interest from its own peculiarities, as well as on account of the rarity of metallic hydrides. Professor Wurtz's next researches were directed to the cyanic and cyanuric ethers, and brought forth, among other results, the discovery, in 1849, of the so-called compound ammonias formed by the displacement of one of the atoms of hydrogen in ammonia, by organic radicals like methyl and ethyl. A third important investigation, published in 1855, resulted in the confirmation of the theory of Laurent, Gerhardt, and Hoffmann, of the double nature of the alcohol radicals—that the substances obtained from alcohol as radicals were not the simple radicals, but were compounds of those radicals with themselves. This has afforded one of the strongest arguments in favor of the view now generally entertained by chemists, that free hydrogen is a compound of hydrogen with hydrogen. Other investigations, which must enter into the summing up of the work of Professor Wurtz in this line, are those on the glycols, and on ethylene oxide; on the action of nascent hydrogen on aldehyde; on the action of chlorine on aldehyde; on the action of hydrochloric acid on aldehyde; on the synthesis of neurine; and on abnormal vapor densities.

In 1864 he was awarded, at the instance of the Academy of Sciences, the Emperor's biennial prize of twenty thousand francs. Two years afterward, or in 1867, he was elected a member of the Academy, in the chemical section, in place of M. Pelouzet. In 1878 he received the Faraday medal from the English Royal Society, and was elected a member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences.

Professor Wurtz presided at the meeting of the French Association for the Progress of Science which was held at Lille in 1874, and delivered the opening address, on the subject of the "Theory of Atoms in the General Conception of the Universe." In this address he revealed a catholicity of spirit, including all men of every nation and creed, and every branch of science, in a community of interest and privilege in the advancement of knowledge, and a poetic capacity of temperament, to which his dry chemical researches gave few opportunities of expression. After sketching Bacon's plan, or dream, for the universal exploration of the earth and the cosmic forces, he said: "Two centuries and a half ago the conception of Bacon was regarded as a noble Utopia; to-day it is a reality. That magnificent programme which he then drew out is ours, gentlemen; ours not in the narrow sense of the word, for I extend this programme to all who, in modern times and in all countries, give themselves to the search for truth, to all workers in science, humble or great, obscure or famous, who form in reality in all parts of the globe, and without distinction of nationality, that vast association which was the dream of Francis Bacon. Yes, science is now a neutral field, a commonwealth, placed in a. serene region, far above the political arena, inaccessible, I wish I could say, to the strifes of parties; in a word, this property is the patrimony of humanity." Having reviewed the recent progress in the sciences of chemistry, physics, and physical astronomy, and spoken of the kinetic theory, he added that these sciences "teach us that the worlds which people infinite space are made like our own system, and the great universe is all movement, co-ordinated movement. But, new and marvelous fact, this harmony of the celestial spheres of which Pythagoras spoke, and which a modern poet has celebrated in immortal verse, is met with in the world of the infinitely little. There, also, all is co-ordinated movement, and these atoms, whose accumulation forms matter, have never any repose; a grain of dust is full of innumerable multitudes of material unities, each of which is agitated by movements. All vibrates in the little world, and this universal restlessness of matter, this 'atomic music,' to continue the metaphor of the ancient philosopher, is like the harmony of worlds; and is it not true that the imagination is equally bewildered and the spirit equally troubled by the spectacle of the illimitable immensity of the universe, and by the consideration of the millions of atoms which people a drop of water?" The address concluded with the words: "Such is the order of nature; and, as Science penetrates it further, she brings to light both the simplicity of the means set at work and the infinite variety of the results. Thus, through the corner of the veil we have been permitted to raise, she enables us to see both the harmony and the profundity of the plan of the universe. Then we enter on another domain which the human spirit will be always impelled to enter and explore. It is thus, and you can not change it. It is in vain that Science has revealed to it the structure of the world and the order of all the phenomena; it wishes to mount higher, and in the conviction that things have not in themselves their own reason for existing, their support, and their origin, it is led to subject them to a first cause unique, universal God."

In 1878 Professor Wurtz delivered the Faraday Lecture of the English Chemical Society, taking for his subject "The Constitution of Matter in the Gaseous State." In this lecture he gave a clear exposition of the kinetic theory of gases, which postulates them as "composed of small particles moving freely in space with immense velocities, and capable of communicating their motion by collision or friction," and suggested that it had "shed a sudden clearness, an unexpected light, on matters which seemed to be veiled in the deepest obscurity," and added that the labors by which this theory had been worked out "mark a resting-place in our course, and are, perhaps, an approach toward the eternal problem of the constitution of matter—a problem which dates from the earliest ages of civilization, and, though discussed by all the great thinkers of ancient as well as of modern times, still remains unsolved. May we not hope that in our own time this problem has been more clearly stated and more earnestly attacked, and that the labors of the nineteenth century have advanced the human mind in these arduous paths more than those of a Lucretius, and even of a Descartes and a Newton? From this point of view the discoveries of modern chemistry, so well expressed and summarized by the immortal conception of Dalton, will mark an epoch in the progress of the human mind."

In the same year Professor Wurtz, having been charged by the French Minister of Public Instruction to make inquiry into the organization of the laboratories and the practical instruction given in the several universities of Germany and Austro-Hungary, made a number of journeys to the great seats of learning in those countries. In his report he insisted strongly on the danger of creating large establishments, where students are taught something of everything, and on the necessity of creating special foci for every large section of experimental science. He showed the advantage of special institutes, and insisted upon the organization of chemical, physical, physiological, anatomical, and pathological institutions, such as flourish on the other side of the Rhine.

A second report on this series of observations has been published within the present year. It contains descriptions of the great scientific establishments of Berlin, Buda-Pest, Gratz, Leipsic, and Munich, and is confined to a simple account of what the author observed in the institutions described; for, he says, "an unmeasured and uncritical approbation in such a matter would be equally misplaced. . . . Everything has been said upon the importance of high scientific training, one of the treasures of the human mind. A great country should increase it continually, in order to be able to diffuse it abundantly."

Besides the multitude of papers embodying the results of his special investigations, and his addresses, Professor Wurtz is the author of a number of works of a more general character, among which are his "Traité élémentaire de Chimie médicale" (Elementary Treatise on Medical Chemistry), 3 vols., Paris, 1864-'65; "Leçons élémentaires de Chimie moderne" (Elementary Lessons of Modern Chemistry), 1866-'68; "Dictionnaire de Chimie pure et appliquée" (Dictionary of Pure and Applied Chemistry), 1868 and following years, with an introduction published separately in 1868, under the title "Histoire des Doctrines chimiques" (History of Chemical Doctrines); "Les hautes Études pratiques dans les Universités Allemandes" (High Practical Studies in the German Universities); and an unfinished "Treatise on Biological Chemistry" (vol. i, 1880). The "Dictionary" just mentioned, which was completed in 1879, after twelve years of preparation and publication in numbers, is pronounced by the "Revue Scientifique" the most complete treatise on chemistry now existing in France. In its preparation, Professor Wurtz was assisted by his fellow-chemists and compatriots, who contributed special articles, each working in the line to which he had given the most attention. Professor Wurtz himself furnished the theoretical articles, especially those having reference to the theory of atoms and their unitary grouping in compounds, of which he is the leading expositor. "In these articles," says the "Revue Scientifique," "the reader will recognize the vigor and precision of style which are the stamp of the works of M. Wurtz." In English translations have been published "Chemical Philosophy according to Modern Theories" (London, 1867), and "Theory from the Age of Lavoisier" (1869). His two latest works, in their English translations, have gained considerable circulation in the United States. The "Elements of Modern Chemistry" (1880) is a text-book, the leading features of which are defined by a discriminating critic in "Nature" to be "clearness of statement, selection of typical facts from among the vast array at the service of the chemical compiler, and devotion of a comparatively large space to chemical theory, and to generalizations which are usually dismissed in a few words in the ordinary text-book"; withal, notwithstanding its copiousness, the book "is exceedingly interesting and eminently readable." The "Academy," reviewing the same work, speaks of its author as "universally recognized as one of the most able of living chemists; he is also an exact thinker, deeply imbued with philosophical ideas, and a very successful teacher." The book comprises a complete introduction to both inorganic and organic chemistry, and presents the newest ideas regarding such subjects as atomicity and isomerism. The other book, "The Atomic Theory," is one of the "International Scientific Series," and fits in well with what is perhaps the most important work of the author's life; for it records the development and present position of a doctrine which he has had as large a part as, if not a larger part than, any other man in bringing to the shape in which it is now generally received by chemists. It embraces an historical introduction, containing a concise, accurate, and complete history of the theory of atoms from the times of the Greek philosophers and Lucretius, and from the revival of the doctrine by Dalton to the present time. A second part includes a full exposition of the theory as it is now held and applied. It is described, by the critic in "Nature" from whom we have quoted, as "at once a scientific treatise and an artistic work, . . . marked with a distinct individuality and self-completeness," and as conveying a sharp impression, "without making any great sacrifice of accuracy."

All of Professor Wurtz's later works are characterized by the marks of his strong faith in his own conception of the atomic theory, and for this he has been criticised perhaps by some one whose theory is a little different as too much inclined to treat theoretical considerations as identical with facts, and as, seemingly, supposing facts to be explained when they are only stated in the language of his theory. He has himself given an illustration of the manner in which this may be brought about, by explaining in his Faraday lecture that, whenever we attempt to make well-observed facts and their immediate consequences—the only certain things in the physical sciences—the basis of any general theory, "hypothetical data are apt to mix themselves up with our deductions."

Professor Wurtz has been President of the Academy of Sciences in Paris since 1881. His merits have been recognized by the French Government by the bestowal of the decoration of the Legion of Honor in 1850 and by promotion to the rank of officer in 1863, and to that of commander on the occasion of his acting as a member of the French section of the International Jury at the Great Exhibition in London, in 1869. In July, 1881, he was appointed a Senator for life in the French Senate, by a large majority, and became the third member of the Academy of Sciences who was in the enjoyment of a seat in that body, his two scientific colleagues being M. Robin and M. Dupuy de Lome.