Prev : Next The synthesis of urea
Modern understandings of life
German chemist Friedrich Wöhler accidently synthesizes urea. Working in Berlin, Wöhler mixes ammonium and cyanate solutions, expecting to create ammonium cyanate, an inorganic salt. To his astonishment, he finds that he has instead produced urea, an organic component of urine.
The event is significant because chemists of the era believed that living things and inanimate things were possessed of fundamentally different natures. They assumed that the synthesis of organic substances required the intervention of a ‘vital force,’ and that reactions involving only inert materials would be insufficient. Wöhler showed that it was possible to synthesize organic compounds from inorganic precursors. The finding established solid empirical grounds for a materialist natural philosophy. Many historians of science contend that Wöhler’s discovery marks the beginning of modern organic chemistry, although vitalism persists for decades.