1902 Encyclopedia > Charles Adolphe Wurtz

Charles Adolphe Wurtz
Franco-German chemist

CHARLES ADOLPHE WURTZ (1817-1884), chemist, was born at Strasburg on November 26, 1817. His father, Jean Jacques Wurtz, was then Lutheran pastor at the small village of Wolfisheim near Strasburg. His mother, Sophie Kreiss, was the sister of Theodore Kreiss, professor of Greek at the Protestant gymnasium of Strasburg, and of Adolphe Kreiss, a Lutheran pastor. When Wurtz was nine years old his father was translated to the church of St Pierre le Jeune in Strasburg, and died there in 1845. Madame Wurtz, after the death of her husband, remained at Strasburg with lier brother Theodore, and after his death lived with her son Adolphe in Paris till her own death in 1878.
Wurtz was educated first at Wolfisheim and afterwards at the Protestant gymnasium of Strasburg. There he obtained several prizes, but seems rather to have disap-pointed his father, who said he would never turn out any-thing extraordinary. He took special interest in those studies which bore upon nature ; in 1828 he took part in a botanical class with excursions, which developed his taste for natural science.
His education owed more perhaps to his home circle than to the school. His learned and pious father, his more generally cultured uncles, and the circle of friends attracted by them opened to him a wide view of what there is for a man to know. His holidays were mostly spent at the house of a grand-aunt at Rothau, where he learned to know the hills and woods of Alsace, and amused himself in the spinning, weaving, bleaching, and print-ing works in the neighbourhood. In 1834 he left the gymnasium with the degree of bachelier-ès-lettres. His father seems to have wished him to devote himself to the church. But he had already made his choice. For some time he had fitted up a sort of laboratory in the washing-house, and had there repeated the experiments he had seen performed in the class-rooms of the gymnasium. His father took no interest in science, but consented to his study of medicine as next best to theology. He went through his studies conscientiously, and passed all his examinations with credit, but of course devoted himself specially to the chemical side of his profession. In 1839 he was appointed superintendent of practical chemistry in the faculty of medicine under Professor Cailliot. He graduated as M.D. 13th August 1843, the title of his thesis being " On Albumin and Fibrin." He then went for a year to Giessen, to study under Liebig. There he made the acquaintance of Hofmann, Strecker, and Kopp. On leaving Giessen he went to Paris, where he worked in Dumas's private laboratory, and in 1845 was appointed assistant to Dumas in the École de Médecine. In 1847, on his presentation of a thesis "On Pyrogenic Bodies," he was appointed "professor aggrégé," and in 1849 he gave the lectures on organic chemistry in place of Dumas. His laboratory in the Ecole Pratique de la Faculté de Médecine was very inconvenient and ill fitted up ; he therefore, in 1850, along with Dollfus and Verdeil, who had just returned to Paris from Giessen, opened a private laboratory in the Rue Garancière. The adventure was successful in a scientific sense as long as it lasted ; but unfortunately the three chemists had neglected to secure fixity of tenure, the house was sold, and they had to retire and sell their furnishings. The same year Wurtz was appointed pro-fessor of chemistry in the Institut Agronomique, then founded at Versailles. But here also the want of fixity was felt. Louis Napoleon abolished the Institut in 1852. Iu 1853 Dumas resigned the chair of organic chemistry in the faculty of medicine ; at the same time the chair of mineral chemistry and toxicology became vacant by the death of Orfila; the two chairs were united, and Wurtz was appointed to the post thus constituted. In 1866 he was made dean of the faculty of medicine, and used his influence for the rearrangement and reconstruction of the buildings devoted to scientific teaching. In 1874 he persuaded the Government to found a chair of organic chemistry at the Sorbonne, and resigned his office of dean, retaining the title of honorary dean. At the Sorbonne he had a smaller but better prepared audience than at the
École de Médecine. But he had great difficulty in per-suading the Government to build him a suitable laboratory, and indeed did not live to see the new laboratory opened. He was appointed senator in 1881. He was one of the founders of the Chemical Society of Paris, of which he was the first secretary, and was three times president. He was elected member of the Academy of Sciences in 1867, in succession to Pelouze. He. was vice-president in 1880 and president in the following year. He died, after a short illness, May 12, 1884. Wurtz was an honorary member of nearly every scientific society in Europe. In 1878 he gave the Faraday lecture of the Chemical Society of London, and in 1881 was awarded the Copley medal by the Royal Society of London. Through life he remained warmly attached to the church of his fathers, and took a practical interest in its affairs.
Wurtz's work is chiefly to be found in the Annales de Chimie et de Physique, in the Comptes Rendus, and in the Bulletin de la Société Chimique. The following is a short outline of his most important discoveries. First, with respect to the constitution of hypophosphorous and phosphorous acids, he showed that the salts of these acids all contain the elements of water, and proposed formulai for them, in which the salt radical is represented as containing hydrogen. These formula;, translated, of course, into the modern language, which Wurtz did so much to introduce, are still used as the best representations of the constitution of these salts. In the course of this investigation he discovered the curious and interest-ing compound cuprous hydride. He also discovered sulphophos-phoric acid and the oxychloride of phosphorus. His next great work was on cyanuric acid. He discovered the cyanic ethers (R-N = C = 0), and from them obtained the mono-alkyl ureas. From the cyanic ethers he produced a class of substances which opened the way into a new field of organic chemistry. On treat-ing these ethers with caustic potash he obtained potassium carbon-ate and an ammoniacal vapour. These vapours he soon recognized as ammonia, in which an equivalent of hydrogen had been replaced by methylium, CH3, or ethylium, C2H5. By acting on the cyanic ethers with his new bases he obtained the dialkyl ureas. In 1855 he reviewed the various substances that had been obtained from glycerin, and came to 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. This speculation led him in 1856 to the discovery of the glycols, alcoholic bodies similarly related to the type of two molecules of water. This discovery he worked out very thoroughly, in investigations on oxide of ethylene and the polyethylenic alcohols. The oxidation of the glycols led him to homologues of lactic acid, and to a discussion of the constitution of the latter. On this question a controversy arose with Kolbe, in the course of which many important facts were discovered, and valuable additions were made to chemical theory. In 1867 Wurtz obtained neurine synthetically, by the action of trimethylamine on glycol-chlorhydrine. In 1873 he discovered aldol, CH3-CH(OH)-CH2-CHO, and pointed out its double character as at once an alcohol and an aldehyde.
His investigations on the defines had led him to the discover}' of the peculiar behaviour of the substance called by him chlor-hydrate of amylene and of its analogues, when the temperature of their vapour is raised. The gradual passage from a gas of approxi-mately normal vapour density to one of half the normal density was used by him as a powerful argument in favour of the opinion that abnormal vapour densities, such as those of sal-ammoniac and pentachloride of phosphorus, are to be explained by dissociation. By experiments at low temperatures and pressures he obtained nearly the normal density in the case of the pentachloride of phosphorus, and showed how the dissociation depends on the temperature and pressure. He took an active part in the discus-sion as to the dissociation of the vapour of hydrate of chloral, in which H. Sainte-Claire Deville and M. Berthelot were his chief opponents. By well-chosen experiments he brought to light the facts involved, and stated the case for dissociation in a very clear and to most minds very convincing way.
Wurtz for twenty years, from 1852 to 1872, published in the Annales de Chimie et de Physique abstracts of chemical work done out of France. In 1868 he began, with the assistance of many French chemists, the publication of the Dictionnaire de Chimie Pure et Appliquée. This great work, many important articles in which were written by himself, was finished in 1878. (Two volumes of appendix have since been added.) In 1864 he published a book in two volumes entitled Chimie Médicale, and in 1867 Leçons Élémentaires de Chimie Moderne, an excellent little text-book which has gone through five editions in French, and has been translated into English by Prof. Greene. In 1879 appeared his Théorie Atomique, and in 1885 Traité de Chimie Biologique. This was his last work ; he corrected the last proof-sheets himself, and the last part of the book was published a few weeks after his death.
A full account of the life and work of Wurtz, with a list of his published books
and papers, will be found in the obituary notice by M. Friedel in the Bulletin de
la Société Chimique, vol. xliii., i.-lxxx., 188.5. (A. C. B.)

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