Adolf von Baeyer, born as Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Adolf Baeyer, was a well-known German chemist best-known for synthesizing indigo, the blue color natural dye used in the textile industry. Coming from an enlightened family he carried out unique experiments when he was still a child and soon developed a keen interest in chemistry. He discovered a double salt of copper at the age of twelve and barbituric acid while doing his post doctorate. When he was around thirty years old he started his experiments on indigo and worked at it for eighteen long years before he could find a suitable formula for its laboratory production. On the basis of his work, scientists later found the appropriate formula for the industrial production of the dye. However, Baeyer’s achievement did not stop at that. He is also famous for synthesizing phenolphthalein and fluorescein. He was also proponent of strain theory of carbon ring. Known as ‘Baeyer Strain Theory’ it later became one of the pillars of biochemistry. However, Baeyer was more than just an inventor; he was equally popular as an academician and had trained many students who later made names for themselves.
Childhood & Early Years
Adolf von Baeyer was born on October 31, 1835, in Berlin. His father, Johann Jakob Baeyer, a lieutenant-general under the Prussian army, was the creator of the European system of geodetic measurement. His mother, Eugenie, was the daughter of famous German author Julius Eduard Hitzig. Adolf von Baeyer was the eldest of his parents’ five children.
Even as a child Adolf was highly inquisitive. At the age of eight, he planted date seeds in a series of pots and fed them successively with milk, wine and ink. However, his experiments at the age of twelve were more successful; he found a new double salt of copper.
Adolf had his secondary education at Friedrich-Wilhelms Gymnasium. In 1853, he joined Berlin University with mathematics and physics as his subjects. Soon he realized that his real interest lay in chemistry. Consequently in 1856, he joined Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen’s laboratory in Heidelberg.
There he worked under German organic chemist Friedrich August Kekulé on methyl chloride. The result of this work was published in 1857. Thereafter, he joined Kekulé's private laboratory in Heidelberg and began to work with him on ingenious structure theory.
Adolf von Baeyer received his PhD in 1858 on his work on cacodyl compounds. Although the work was done in Heidelberg at Kekulé’s laboratory, he received his degree from Berlin University.
After receiving his PhD, Baeyer rejoined Kekulé, who was then a professor at the University of Ghent. Here Baeyer worked on uric acid, which led to the discovery of barbituric acid. Barbiturate, a component of sleeping pills, is produced from this acid. The thesis made him eligible for teaching post.
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Adolf von Baeyer began his academic career as a lecturer (privatdozent) in organic chemistry at the Berlin Gewerbe-Akademie (Trade Academy) in 1860. Although he received a small remuneration he took up the job because the Academy provided him with a spacious laboratory. It is here that Baeyer started his research on indigo.
Until then, the blue pigment could be obtained only from indigo plant grown in India. Consequently the price was too high and the supply was limited. For the chemists, it was a challenge to reproduce the pigment synthetically and make it available at an affordable price.
Although he started his experimentation in 1865, while he was still working at Trade Academy, it took many years to complete. The complex nature of indigo made it a very hard and time consuming task.
Meanwhile in 1866, Baeyer was appointed to the post of the assistant professor in chemistry at the University of Berlin. In the same year, he reduced oxindole to indole using zinc dust. In 1869, he proposed the Baeyer–Emmerling indole synthesis method.
In 1871, Baeyer joined the University of Strasbourg as a full professor and along with working on indigo he kept on experimenting with various products. His theory of carbon-dioxide assimilation in formaldehyde was formed during his tenure here. He also discovered the synthesis of phenolphthalein and obtained synthetic fluorescein during this period.
Four years later in 1875, he shifted to the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich as professor of chemistry and remained there until his death in 1917. Here he had the opportunity to build up an excellent chemical laboratory and continue with his work on indigo at full force.
In 1882, Bayer published the ‘Baeyer–Drewson indigo syntheses’. It turned out to be an easy route for producing indigo at laboratory scale. However, it was not until the following year that Baeyer could fully determine the structure of indigo.
Apart from working on indigo, Baeyer worked on many other products such as acetylene and polyacetylene. The famous ‘Baeyer strain theory’ of the carbon rings was derived from these experiments. Later, he received the coveted Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing this theory.
In addition, he and his team studied constitution of benzene and also investigated into cyclic terpene. He also worked on cyclic ketone and published the Baeyer-Villiger oxidation theory in 1899. His work on organic peroxides and oxonium compounds also aroused interest among the chemists.
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From 1900, von Baeyer started working on triphenylmethane. From this work, a new notion about the chemical composition of pigments began to be developed. Moreover, his works helped to understand the relationship between the optical properties of organic substances and their interior atomic structure to a large extent.
He continued working at the University of Munich almost till his end. During that period, he was considered to be one of the best known teachers in the field of organic chemistry. All through his career, he had nurtured at least fifty talented students, who later became well-known academicians.
Synthesizing of indigo, which took almost eighteen years to complete, was one of Baeyer’s most important works. Although his formula was meant only for laboratory production of the pigment his work paved the way for further experimentation and by 1897, indigo began to be produced commercially.
Synthesis of phenolphthalein, a chemical compound used mainly as an indicator in acid based tritrations, is another of his major works done in 1871. To get the product, he condensed phthalic anhydride with two equivalents of phenol under acidic conditions.
Synthesized fluorescein, which is mainly used as a fluorescent tracer for many applications, is another of his important work. In 1871, he prepared it from phthalic anhydride and resorcinol in the presence of zinc chloride via the Friedel-Crafts reaction.
Awards & Achievements
In 1905, Adolf von Baeyer received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry "in recognition of his services in the advancement of organic chemistry and the chemical industry, through his work on organic dyes and hydroaromatic compounds".
Earlier in 1881, Baeyer was awarded the Davy Medal by the Royal Society of London for his work with indigo.
In 1884, he was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Personal Life & Legacy
Adolf Baeyer married Adelheid (Lida) Bendemann in 1868. They had three children; one daughter, who later married one of Adolf’s students Oskar Piloty and two sons, Hans and Otto. While Hans was a professor of medicine at the University of Munich, Otto was a professor of physics at the University of Berlin.
Baeyer was raised to hereditary nobility on his fiftieth birthday in 1885 and since then he began to be known as Adolf von Baeyer.
Baeyer was active till his end. He died from a seizure on August 20, 1917 at his country home in Starnberger See.