Otto Diels or Otto Paul Herman Diels was a German scientist who received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing a process by which cyclic organic compounds could be obtained. This process was called the ‘diene synthesis’ or the ‘Diels-Alder reaction’. He shared the Nobel Prize with another scientist, Kurt Alder, who had worked jointly with him in developing the process. His work led to the production of synthetic plastics and rubber. His initial research was in the field of inorganic chemistry during which he discovered a highly reactive substance known as ‘carbon suboxide’. He later changed his research to encompass the domain of organic chemistry. His process of using selenium to remove hydrogen atoms from cyclic organic compounds not only helped the synthesis of plastics and rubber but also became a useful tool for finding out the complicated chemical structures of a series of steroids. He was successful in dehydrogenating cholesterol with the help of selenium which produced a skeletal structure of steroids. During the period when he was at the ‘University of Kiel’, he worked with Kurt Alder to develop the ‘Diels-Alder reaction’ which helped to synthesize unsaturated cyclic organic compounds leading to the production of synthetic plastic and rubber compounds, alkaloids and insecticides at a low cost without using any catalyst, reagent, high temperature or pressure.
Childhood & Early Life
Otto Diels was born on January 23, 1876 in Hamburg, Germany. His father, Hermann Diels, was a professor at the University of Berlin and taught classical philology. His mother, Bertha Dubell, was a district judge’s daughter.
He had two brothers named Ludwig and Paul who went on to become professors in the fields of botany and Slavic philology respectively.
When he was two-year-old his family moved from Hamburg to Berlin where his father was offered a professorship at the university.
He did his early schooling from 1882 to 1895 at the ‘Joachimsthalsches Gymnasium’ in Berlin.
In 1895 he enrolled at the University of Berlin to study chemistry along with other science subjects.
He received his doctoral degree from the university in 1899.
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Immediately after graduation from the University of Berlin in 1899, he was appointed an assistant at the Institute of Chemistry at the same university.
He progressed very fast through the ranks and soon became a lecturer in 1904 and was then promoted to professor in 1906.
In 1906 he discovered ‘carbon suboxide’ which is the anhydride acidic form of malonic acid. He found out the chemical composition and properties of this highly reactive substance. The information about its chemical structure helped him understand the composition of different carbon oxides.
In 1913 he was appointed the Head of the Department of chemistry at the Berlin University and became a full professor in 1915.
He was appointed as an associate professor at the Chemical Institute of the Royal Friedrich Wilhelm University in Kiel in 1914.
In 1916 he moved to the Christian Albrecht University of Kiel as the Professor and Director of the Institute of Chemistry and remained in the post till his retirement in 1945.
In 1927 he introduced the use of selenium as a reagent for removing hydrogen atoms from hydroaromatic compounds. The process he devised could be used to remove the hydrogen atoms from the molecules of certain organic compounds under external control by using metallic selenium producing a completely new structure.
In 1928 he and one of his students, Kurt Alder, developed a method known as the ‘Diels-Alder reaction’ which helped him synthesize a large number of organic compounds. In this experiment simple ‘dienes’ such as ‘butadiene’ could be converted into cyclic ‘dienes’ which lead to the production of new organic compounds. New types of polymers, alkaloids, and plastics could be obtained in this way. This was his most important discovery and won him the Nobel Prize.
He became a member of the ‘Bavarian Academy of Sciences’ and the scientific academies of Gottingen and Halle during this period and an Emeritus Professor in 1945.
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During the end of the Second World War the Chemical Institute was totally destroyed in Allied air raids. He had to stop work and applied for retirement in September 1944 and was granted the permission to retire in March 1945.
In 1946 he was again requested to continue as the director of the Chemical Institute operating from makeshift quarters which he agreed to.
Otto Diels authored and published his work ‘Einfuhrung in die organische Chemie’ in 1907 which had nineteen editions by 1962. It is one of the most popular textbooks in the field of organic chemistry.
His papers were published in many scientific journals and magazines including the periodical ‘Liebigs Annalen der Chemie’.
Awards & Achievements
Otto Diels was awarded a gold medal at the International Exhibition held in St. Louis, USA, in 1904.
He was awarded the Adolf von Baeyer Memorial Medal in 1931 by the ‘Society of German Chemists’.
In 1946 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the ‘Medical faculty of Christian Albrecht University’.
He won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1950.
In 1952 he was awarded the ‘Grosskreuz des Verdienstordens der Bundesrepublik Deutschland’.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Paula Geyer in 1909 and had three sons and two daughters from the marriage.
He lost two of his sons at the eastern front during World War II.
His home was also razed to the ground by Allied bombing during the later stages of the World War II.
Otto Diels died of heart failure on March 7, 1954 in Kiel in West Germany, which is now part of unified Germany.
Otto Diels was fond of music and reading and liked traveling. He was also fond of mountaineering in his younger days.