Charles Adolphe Wurtz (he never used the name "Charles") was born in Wolfischeim near Strasbourg, Germany, on November 26, 1817, the son of Johann Jacob (Jean Jacques) Wurtz, a Lutheran pastor. When he left the Protestant gymnasium at Strasbourg in 1834, his father allowed him to study medicine as being the next best subject to theology. He devoted himself especially to the chemical side of his profession with such success that in 1839 he was appointed Chef des travaux chimiques ("Chief of Practical Chemistry") at the Strasbourg faculty of medicine. For the summer semester of 1842 he studied under Justus von Liebig at the University of Giessen. After graduating from Strasbourg as M.D. in 1843, with a thesis on albumin and fibrin, he went to Paris, where he first was referred by Jean Baptiste Dumas to Antoine Balard.
Wurtz's employment with Balard lasted a few months, after which he began work in Dumas' 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. As there was no laboratory at his disposal at the Ecole de Médecine, he opened a private one in 1850 in the Rue Garanciere; but three years later the building was sold, and the laboratory had to be abandoned. In 1850, he received the professorship of chemistry at the new Institut National Agronomique at Versailles, but the Institut was abolished in 1852.
In 1853 the chair of "pharmacy and organic chemistry" at the faculty of medicine became vacant following the resignation of Dumas, and the chair of "medical chemistry" by the death of Mathieu Orfila. Both of these chairs were abolished, and Wurtz was appointed to the newly defined post of "organic and mineral chemistry." In 1866, Wurtz 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.
In 1875, resigning the office of dean but retaining the title of honorary dean, he became the first occupant of a new chair of organic chemistry at the Sorbonne, which the government had established due to his influence. However, he had great difficulty in obtaining an adequate laboratory. The buildings of the new Sorbonne that ultimately provided modern scientific laboratories were not completed until 1894, ten years after his death.
Wurtz was an honorary member of almost every scientific society in Europe. He was the principal founder 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 French Academy of Sciences, which he entered in 1867 in succession to Théophile-Jules Pelouze. In 1881, Wurtz was elected life senator. Wurtz's name is one of the 72 names inscribed on the Eiffel tower.
Influenced by such leading figures as Liebig and Dumas, by 1856 Wurtz became a powerful advocate of a reform in chemical theory then being led by Charles Gerhardt and Alexander Williamson. This new chemistry of the 1850s took the idea of chemical atoms seriously, adopted atomic weights for the elements that strongly resemble the modern ones, and proposed a unitary schematic plan that opposed the dualistic theory derived from the work of Jons Jacob Berzelius. Soon thereafter, Wurtz also adopted the new structural theory that was developing from the work of younger chemists such as August Kekulé. However, a kind of skeptical positivism was influential in France during the second half of the nineteenth century, and Wurtz's efforts to gain a favorable hearing for atomism and structuralism in his homeland were largely frustrated.
Wurtz's first published paper was on hypophosphorous acid (1841), and the continuation of his work on the acids of phosphorus (1845) resulted in the discovery of sulfophosphoric acid and phosphorus oxychloride, as well as of copper hydride. But his original work was mainly in the domain of organic chemistry.
For twenty-one years (1852–1872) Wurtz published in the Annales de chimie et de physiquem. 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 générale du monde (1874), La Théorie atomique (1878), Progrés 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 (also published separately in 1869), opens with the phrase, La chimie est une science française. Although it raised a storm of protest in Germany, the sentence is less nationalistic than it appears; he intended to refer only to the birth of chemistry under the great Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, rather than asserting exclusive French national ownership of the science.
The new mineral species wurtzite was named in his honor by Friedel in 1861. Wurtz died in Paris in 1884, probably of complications due to diabetes, and was buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery.
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