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Who was Adolf von Baeyer?

Updated on December 2, 2016

Adolf von Baeyer was a German chemist, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1905 "in recognition of his services in the development of organic chemistry and the chemical industry through his work on organic dyes and hydroaromatic combinations".

Baeyer was born in Berlin on October 31, 1835. He studied chemistry at Heidelberg University with Robert Bunsen, who stressed the importance' of physics in chemical training and research. Another one of his teachers was Friedrich August

Kekule, who first described the structure of benzene. At times, later in life, Baeyer discounted his formal education and claimed that he was really self-taught.

After receiving a doctor's degree from the University of Berlin in 1860, he became a chemistry teacher there. A few years later, he became head of the chemistry laboratory at the Berlin Gewerbeinstitut, a vocational school that grew into the Charlottenburg Institute of Technology. After the German repossession of Alsace, a new university was founded at Strasbourg, and Baeyer was appointed its professor of chemistry in 1872. In 1875 he moved to Munich, where he succeeded the leading organic chemist of the time, Justus von Liebig. The government built a new laboratory for Baeyer and gave him an official residence.

One of his first achievements was the preparation of barbituric acid, the base of many sleeping pills. He began his work with the dye indigo in 1865. By 1880 his patents for synthesizing indigo and other organic compounds were acquired by two large chemical and dye organizations, the Badische Anilin- und Soda-Fabrik and the Hoechst Farbwerke. Although his process for making synthetic indigo was not commercially feasible, he did accomplish much for the dye industry. He investigated phthaleins, which are triphenyl-methane derivatives that are basically aniline dyes and hydroaromatic compounds. One of his students, Karl Graebe, synthesized alizarin, and this accomplishment was used industrially.

One of his many students and collaborators was the son of William Perkin, the English chemist who prepared the first synthetic dye. Baeyer and William Perkin, Jr., devised procedures for forming molecules that contain a ring of carbon atoms, and they established Baeyer's strain theory, which indicates why rings of 5 or 6 carbon atoms are the most common. Baeyer's students comprise a list of notables in organic chemistry in Germany during the early 20th century. They include Friedrich K.J. Thiele, F. Schlenk, Heinrich Otto Wieland, Kurt Meyer, Emil Fischer, and Otto Fischer.

Baeyer received numerous prizes and awards. In 1881 the Royal Society of London gave him the Davy Medal for his work on indigo. In 1905 his scientific papers were collected and published in two volumes. In the same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Baeyer died at Stamberg on August 20, 1917.

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