Friedrich Wohler: Biography, Discoveries & Contributions

Instructor: Sarah Pierce

Sarah has taught high school chemistry and biology, as well as college level chemistry(general, organic, analytical, biochemistry), and has a doctorate in chemistry.

This lesson describes the scientific discoveries of Friederich Wohler. The isolation of aluminum, synthesis of urea, and the reactions of benzaldehyde are covered.


Imagine you are in your kitchen getting ready to bake chocolate chip cookies. You mix the dough in an aluminum bowl. You place the balls of dough on an aluminum pan and put it in the oven. Once the cookies are done, you use an aluminum spatula to remove the cookies from the pan. When the cookies have cooled, you cover them with aluminum foil. Aluminum seems to be everywhere!

Aluminum is a lightweight metal that can be used in many different applications, from kitchenware to airplane parts. Can you imagine life without aluminum? Do you know aluminum wasn't always able to be used because it wasn't pure?

Aluminum is used for airplane parts

Aluminum wasn't isolated in the pure form until Friedrich Wohler perfected Hans Christian Oersted's method in 1827. Wohler mixed aluminum chloride with potassium to form pure aluminum and potassium chloride salt!

AlCl3 + 3 K ------> Al + 3 KCl

Let's learn a little bit more about the chemist who discovered a way to isolate the pure form of this versatile metal.

Discoveries of Frederick Wohler

Frederick Wohler was a German chemist who was born in 1800. Wohler went to school to learn about medicine and after he finished in 1823, he decided to teach chemistry and work in the laboratory.

Frederick Wohler


In 1807, Jons Jakob Berzelius divided the world into two kinds of materials:

  1. Organic - materials obtained from living things (plants, animals, etc.) that contained a ''vital force''
  2. Inorganic - materials obtained from minerals (aluminum, salt, etc.)

Scientists during this time believed that materials were either organic or inorganic, and one could not be made from the other. Imagine their surprise when Wohler did just that!

In 1828, Wohler made urea (a compound that comes from animal urine,) using ammonium cyanate, a mineral. Wohler was so surprised he wrote to Berzelius exclaiming that he could ''make urea without the need of a kidney, or even an animal, be it man or dog.''

When ammonium cyanate (a mineral) is heated, urea is produced
urea synthesis

Many scientist believe that this beginning of modern-day organic chemistry studies. Organic compounds not longer had to have a ''vital force;'' they could be synthesized in the laboratory and studied.

Oil of Almond

Wohler and his friend Justus von Liebig published a paper in 1832 on the ''oil of almond,'' which we now know is the molecule benzaldehyde.

The structure of benzaldehyde, found in the oil of almond that Wohler studied

Wohler and Liebig studied several reactions involving this molecule and what they found was that while parts of the molecule would change, the same 'root' structure would remain the same. They defined the root structure as C6 H7 O. The compound might gain an oxygen or a chloride when it went through a reaction, but the root structure stayed the same: C6 H7 O.

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