Adolph Wilhelm Hermann Kolbe

Adolph Wilhelm Hermann Kolbe bigraphy, stories - Chemists

Adolph Wilhelm Hermann Kolbe : biography

September 27, 1818 – November 25, 1884

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.

He worked on the electrolysis of the salts of fatty and other acids (Kolbe electrolysis) and prepared salicylic acid, a building block of aspirin in a process called Kolbe synthesis or Kolbe-Schmitt reaction. A certain method for the synthesis of nitriles is called the Kolbe nitrile synthesis.

Hermann Kolbe was the first person to use the word synthesis in the present day meaning.

With Edward Frankland he found that nitriles can be hydrolyzed to the corresponding acids.


As editor of the Journal für praktische Chemie (Journal of practical chemistry, from 1870 to 1884), Kolbe was sometimes so severely critical of the work of others, especially after about 1874, that some wondered whether he might have been suffering a mental illness. He was intolerant of what he regarded as loose speculation parading as theory, and sought through his writings to save his beloved science of chemistry from what he regarded as the scourge of modern structural theory.

His rejection of structural chemistry, especially the theories of the structure of benzene by August Kekulé, the theory of the asymmetric carbon atom by J.H. van’t Hoff, and the reform of chemical nomenclature by Adolf von Baeyer, resulted in vituperative articles in the Journal für Praktische Chemie. Some translated quotes illustrate his manner of articulating the deep conflict between his interpretation of chemistry and that of the structural chemists: "…Baeyer is an excellent experimentor, but he is only an empiricist, lacking sense and capability, and his interpretations of his experiments show particular deficiency in his familiarity with the principles of true science…"

The violence of his language worked unfairly to limit his posthumous reputation. He died of a heart attack, in Leipzig.