Adolph Wilhelm Hermann Kolbe

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Adolph Wilhelm Hermann Kolbe (September 27, 1818 – November 25, 1884) was a German chemist. He never used the first two of his given names, preferring to be known as Hermann Kolbe.



Kolbe was born in Elliehausen, near Göttingen, Kingdom of Hanover (Germany) as the eldest son of a Protestant pastor. At the age of 13 he entered the Göttingen Gymnasium, residing at the home of one of the professors. He obtained the leaving certificate (the Abitur) six years later. He had become passionate about the study of chemistry, matriculating at the University of Göttingen in the spring of 1838 in order to study with the famous chemist Friedrich Wöhler.

In 1842 he became an assistant to Robert Bunsen at the University of Marburg; he took his doctoral degree there in 1843. A new opportunity arose in 1845, when he became assistant to Lyon Playfair at the new Museum of Economic Geology in London, where he became a close friend of Edward Frankland. From 1847 he was engaged in editing the Handwörterbuch der reinen und angewandten Chemie (Dictionary of Pure and Applied Chemistry) edited by Justus von Liebig, Wöhler, and Johann Christian Poggendorff, and he also wrote an important textbook. In 1851 Kolbe succeeded Bunsen as professor of chemistry at Marburg, and in 1865 he was called to the University of Leipzig. In 1864, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

In 1853 he married Charlotte, the daughter of General-Major Wilhelm von Bardeleben. His wife died in 1876 after 23 years of happy marriage. They had four children.


As late as the 1840s, and despite Friedrich Wöhler's synthesis of urea in 1828, some chemists still believed in the doctrine of vitalism, according to which a special life-force was necessary to create organic compounds. Kolbe developed the idea that organic compounds could be derived from inorganic ones, directly or indirectly, by substitution processes. He validated his theory by converting carbon disulfide, in several steps, to acetic acid (1843–45). Introducing a modified idea of structural radicals, he contributed to the establishment of structural theory. One of the more dramatic successes of his theory was his prediction of the existence of secondary and tertiary alcohols, a conjecture that was soon confirmed by the synthesis of these substances.

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