Georg Wittig was a German chemist who won a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1979. He developed a method for synthesis of alkenes from aldehydes and ketones using compounds called phosphonium ylides which later came to be known as the Wittig reaction. The son of a professor, he developed an early love for science and started studying chemistry at the University of Tübingen in 1916. The ongoing World War I, however, interrupted his studies and he was drafted into the army. His military experience was traumatic and he was taken a prisoner of war by the British forces in 1918. He was released the next year but faced considerable trouble in resuming his studies as the universities in Germany were already overcrowded. In desperation, he made a plea to the professor for organic chemistry at the University of Marburg, Karl von Auwers, who accepted the young man into the institution. Wittig was an intelligent and hardworking student who after three years of rigorous studies was awarded the Ph.D. in organic chemistry. On the advice of his mentor, von Auwers, he ventured into an academic career. After working at the TU Braunschweig and the University of Freiburg, he eventually succeeded the head of the organic chemistry department Wilhelm Schlenk at the University of Tübingen.
Childhood & Early Life
Georg Wittig was born on June 16, 1897, in Berlin, German Empire, and grew up in Kassel where his father was a professor of applied arts. As a young boy he learned to play the piano at the behest of his music loving mother.
After finishing his schooling in 1916, he decided to study chemistry at the University of Tübingen. However, his studies were interrupted by the ongoing World War I and the young man was drafted into the army and made a lieutenant in the cavalry of Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel).
During his military career he was taken a prisoner of war by the English forces in 1918. He was desperate to resume his studies upon his release in 1919. But at that time all the German universities were overcrowded and Wittig was not able to get into any educational institution.
He made a direct appeal to Karl von Auwers, who was professor for organic chemistry at the University of Marburg at the time, and got selected into the institution. A bright student, he performed well in his studies. He graduated in 1923 and was awarded the Ph.D. in organic chemistry after three years in 1926.
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Georg Wittig embarked on an academic career on the advice of von Auwers and became a lecturer in chemistry at Marburg after the completion of his Habilitation (permission to lecture in a university). During his years there he became good friends with Karl Ziegler, who was also doing his habilitation with von Auwers.
In 1932, he was invited by Karl Fries to join the TU Braunschweig as a professor. The 1930s was a period of political chaos in Germany with the Nazi party increasingly gaining power. Fries was strictly opposed to the Nazis due to which the Nazis tried to get rid of him. Wittig, who supported Fries, feared for his own job too.
The Nazis were eventually successful in forcing Fries into retirement. Fortunately for Wittig, Hermann Staudinger, the director of the Chemical Institute at the University of Freiburg in Breisgau, invited him to become an associate professor at that institution in 1937.
Wittig’s tenure in Freiburg was marked by intensive research which laid the foundations of carbanion chemistry. During his years at the university he performed significant works including the formulation of dehydrobenzene and the discovery of the new class of ammonium ylides.
In 1943, Wilhelm Schlenk, the head of the organic chemistry department at the University of Tübingen, died. The following year, Georg Witting succeeded Schlenk and was appointed full professor and director of the university’s Chemical Institute.
Once the World War II ended, Wittig was able to establish a very active research group with young scientists. He was known to be a meticulous teacher and set very high standards for his students. He was regarded as a very successful mentor who inspired several young minds to start an academic career.
In 1956, he succeeded Karl Freudenberg as the head of the organic chemistry department at the University of Heidelberg. He continued working there even after his retirement in 1967. Over the duration of his long illustrious career, he published over 300 scientific papers.
He discovered the chemical reaction of an aldehyde orketone with a triphenyl phosphonium ylide to give an alkene and triphenylphosphine oxide, now known as the Wittig reaction. It is widely used in organic synthesis for the preparation of alkenes.
Georg Wittig discovered the 1,2-Wittig rearrangement which is a categorization of chemical reactions in organic chemistry, and consists of a 1,2-rearrangement of an ether with an alkyllithium compound.
He is also credited with the discovery of the [2,3]-Wittig rearrangement which refers to the transformation of an allylic ether into a homoallylic alcohol via a concerted, pericyclic process.
Awards & Achievements
In 1967, he received the coveted Otto Hahn Prize for Chemistry and Physics.
Georg Wittig and Herbert C. Brown were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1979 "for their development of the use of boron- and phosphorus-containing compounds, respectively, into important reagents in organic synthesis."
Personal Life & Legacy
Georg Wittig married Waltraud Ernst in 1931. His wife, who also worked in von Auwers’s group, had a doctorate degree and supported her husband in his scientific endeavors until her death in 1978. The couple had three daughters.
He lived a long life and suffered from ill health during his later years. He died on August 26, 1987, a few weeks after his 90th birthday.