People Who Changed History – Friedrich Wohler [1800-1882]

In 1828, something quite remarkable occurred. A German scientist called Friedrich Wohler discovered that chemicals produced by life itself could be recreated artificially in a laboratory. He did it while trying to concoct the ammonia cyanate, but quite by accident he managed to synthesise something else completely. Until then, people had believed that some sort of fundamental force separated animate from inanimate matter. The artificial creation of a chemical of nature, such as urea, out of inanimate substances in a laboratory had been considered totally impossible.

Wohler’s discovery spawned a second front in man’s knowledge of how to use the same materials as nature, but for his own means. Life’s modelling clay is constructed using mainly carbon and hydrogen that can combine with traces of other elements and oxygen in an almost infinite variety of chains, curls and rings to produce the diverse stuff of living things. One of the richest sources of such is crude oil. Wohler’s amazing discovery now meant that it was now possible for mankind to learn how to model with life’s clay too; of course we weren’t capable of creating life yet. But we now had the ability to synthesise new, useful but wholly unnatural materials.

The discovery ultimately led to the concept of organic chemistry, from which derive almost everything that makes our modern world possible, everything from plastics, synthesised drugs, explosives and artificial fertiliser.


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