The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> Chemistry >> Biography
Adolf von Baeyer

Nobel Prize winner

Adolf von Baeyer

Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Adolf von Baeyer was born in Berlin, Germany, on October 31, 1835, the eldest of five children in a family distinguished in both literature and natural sciences. His father had developed the European system of geodetic measurement and was chief of the Berlin Geodetic Institute when Adolf was born, and Adolf developed a fascination with chemistry at an early age. When he was twelve, he discovered a new double salt of copper.

Adolf studied mathematics and chemistry at Berlin University from 1853 to 1855, but his earlier fascination with chemistry returned and in 1856 he transferred to the university in Heidelberg to study under Robert Wilhelm Bunsen and to work in the laboratory of Friedrich August Kekulé. He published his first work, concerning his studies on methyl chloride in 1857. The work he did on cacodyl (arsenic) compounds while in Kekulé's laboratory earned him a Ph.D. from Berlin University in 1858.

Once freed from academic work, Baeyer was able to focus more on research. One of his first projects concerned the properties of uric acid, and in 1860 he discovered barbituric acid, the base ingredient of barbituates. This work got him qualified as a university teacher, and that same year he became a lecturer at the Trade Academy in Berlin. The job came with very little pay, but Baeyer did get a spacious laboratory, and in it he was able to develop a process for synthesizing barbituric acid, in 1864.

The research for which Baeyer is most famous, on the properties of indigo, began in 1865. Fascinated by the blue dye since his youth, his research led to the discovery of indole, a compound obtained from coal tar and indigo and produced by decomposition of tryptophan in the intestine, where it contributes to the peculiar odor of feces. Continued research led to the successful synthesis of indigo dye, and to his appointment as Professor of Chemistry at Strassburg in 1871; he moved to Munich University in 1875. His indigo research also resulted in his being awarded the Davy Medal by the Royal Society of London in 1881, and the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1905.

In addition to the work already discussed, Baeyer also discovered phenolphthalein, a chemical used to test the acidity or alkalinity of a substance, and fluorescin, a dye that glows under ultraviolet light and which is now used by crime scene technicians to detect hidden bloodstains. He also developed the Baeyer strain theory of carbon rings, which helped explain why it was more common to find carbon rings of five or six atoms than ones of fewer atoms; the theory became one of the founding blocks of biochemistry. In 1905, a collection of his scientific papers was published in two volumes as Gesammelte Werke. Baeyer was also the founder of Baeyer Chemical Company (now Bayer). He died in Starnberg, Germany, on August 20, 1917.


Human Touch of Chemistry

See Also

Nobel Prize for Chemistry

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Chemistry >> Biography

This page was last updated on 08/20/2018.