The History of Organic Chemistry

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  • 0:03 Early Organic Chemistry
  • 0:49 Organic Chemistry Timeline
  • 5:32 Organic Chemistry Today
  • 6:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In this lesson we will learn about the history of organic chemistry, how it was developed, how it has changed from when it was first developed, and how it became an important field of study today.

Early Organic Chemistry

What makes you different from a rock? What makes life? What differentiates organic chemistry from inorganic chemistry? In the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was believed that organic compounds could only be obtained from living organisms. And it was due to a vital force that all living organisms had that led to the formation of organic compounds. So there was a distinction made between organic compounds and inorganic compounds. Organic, meaning 'coming from an organism,' while inorganic was everything else. Today we know this distinction is not true, yet we continue to differentiate organic chemistry from inorganic chemistry due to the importance of organic compounds in the world.

Organic Chemistry Timeline

Let's examine some hallmark moments that have been influential in the development of the organic chemistry discipline.

1828: Frederich Wohler proved the 'vital force' theory wrong by synthetically producing urea.

In the early 1800s scientists had already learned how to isolate many compounds from plants. Yet they thought that the vital force in plants was the only way to produce these compounds. In 1828, Friedrich Wohler was the first scientist to synthetically produce one of these compounds: urea. This discovery made scientists realize that these organic compounds could indeed be synthesized and that there was no vital force.

1865: Friedrich August Kekule von Stradonitz discovered the benzene ring structure.

An important breakthrough was discovering the organic structure of the benzene ring. Typically, double bonds are shorter than single bonds, yet due to benzene's unique circular shape with double bonds placed at every other bond, all of the bonds are of equal length. This unique structure of benzene was difficult for scientists to figure out.

Then in 1865 Friedrich August Kekule von Stradonitz, often simply referred to as Kekule, figured it out. Kekule explains he discovered this structure after days of studying benzene and trying to determine how and why it reacts in the way that it does. One night he had a dream of snakes twisting together until they formed a circle. He woke up from this dream and realized that benzene was circular. From there he was able to figure out the structure of benzene, which led to further discoveries about how organic compounds react.

1874: Jacobus van 't Hoff and Joseph-Achille Le Bel developed an organic molecule modeling system.

1874 saw several more advances in organic chemistry. Scientists had started to realize that sometimes compounds would react in different ways even though they had the same chemical formula. They realized that the differences were due to the direction, typically explained as up or down, that the atoms were coming off from the carbon atom.

Jacobus van 't Hoff and Joseph-Achille Le Bel developed a system to indicate what way these atoms were coming off of the carbon, called a 3D stereochemical representation. A solid line indicates the atom coming up from the carbon, while a dashed line indicates that it is going backwards. They also discovered that carbon is a tetrahedral. In other words, carbon can have four atoms coming off of it.

1899: Bayer produced aspirin commercially.

Willow was first used 5000 years ago as an anti-inflammatory. The organic compounds in willow that cause anti-inflammatory response were first isolated in 1828 by Joseph Buchner. Later this compound was synthesized in the lab. In 1899, aspirin was officially produced as an anti-inflammatory using the organic compounds that were originally used thousands of years ago in medicines.

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