August Kekulé


August Kekulé : biography

7 September 1829 – 13 July 1896

Early years

Kekulé was born in Darmstadt, the son of a civil servant. After graduating from secondary school, in 1847 he entered the University of Giessen, with the intention of studying architecture. After hearing the lectures of Justus von Liebig he decided to study chemistry. Following his education in Giessen, he took postdoctoral fellowships in Paris (1851–52), in Chur, Switzerland (1852–53), and in London (1853–55), where he was decisively influenced by Alexander Williamson.


1979 East German stamp of Kekulé, in honour of the sesquicentennial of his birth. In 1895 Kekulé was ennobled by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, giving him the right to add "von Stradonitz" to his name, referring to a possession of his patrilineal ancestors in Stradonice, Bohemia. This title was also used by his son, the genealogist Stephan Kekulé von Stradonitz.

Of the first five Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Kekulé’s students won three: van ‘t Hoff in 1901, Fischer in 1902 and Baeyer in 1905.

A larger-than-life size monument of Kekulé is situated in front of the former Chemical Institute at the University of Bonn. His monument is often decorated by students, e.g. for Valentine’s Day.

Theory of chemical structure

In 1856 Kekulé became Privatdozent at the University of Heidelberg. In 1858 he was hired as full professor at the University of Ghent, then in 1867 he was called to Bonn, where he remained for the rest of his career. Basing his ideas on those of predecessors such as Williamson, Edward Frankland, William Odling, Auguste Laurent, Charles Adolphe Wurtz and others, Kekulé was the principal formulator of the theory of chemical structure (1857–58). This theory proceeds from the idea of atomic valence, especially the tetravalence of carbon (which Kekulé announced late in 1857) and the ability of carbon atoms to link to each other (announced in a paper published in May 1858), to the determination of the bonding order of all of the atoms in a molecule. Archibald Scott Couper independently arrived at the idea of self-linking of carbon atoms (his paper appeared in June 1858), and provided the first molecular formulas where lines symbolize bonds connecting the atoms.

For organic chemists, the theory of structure provided dramatic new clarity of understanding, and a reliable guide to both analytic and especially synthetic work. As a consequence, the field of organic chemistry developed explosively from this point. Among those who were most active in pursuing early structural investigations were, in addition to Kekulé and Couper, Frankland, Wurtz, Alexander Crum Brown, Emil Erlenmeyer, and Aleksandr Mikhailovich Butlerov.

Kekulé’s idea of assigning certain atoms to certain positions within the molecule, and schematically connecting them using what he called their "Verwandtschaftseinheiten" ("affinity units", now called "valences" or "bonds"), was based largely on evidence from chemical reactions, rather than on instrumental methods that could peer directly into the molecule, such as X-ray crystallography. Such physical methods of structural determination had not yet been developed, so chemists of Kekulé’s day had to rely almost entirely on so-called "wet" chemistry. Some chemists, notably Adolph Wilhelm Hermann Kolbe, heavily criticized the use of structural formulas that were offered, as he thought, without proof. However, most chemists followed Kekulé’s lead in pursuing and developing what some have called "classical" structure theory, which was modified after the discovery of electrons (1897) and the development of quantum mechanics (in the 1920s).

The idea that the number of valences of a given element was invariant was a key component of Kekulé’s version of structural chemistry. This generalization suffered from many exceptions, and was subsequently replaced by the suggestion that valences were fixed at certain oxidation states. For example, periodic acid according to Kekuléan structure theory could be represented by the chain structure I-O-O-O-O-H. By contrast, the modern structure of (meta) periodic acid has all four oxygen atoms surrounding the iodine in a tetrahedral geometry.


Kekulé never used his first given name; he was known throughout his life as August Kekulé. After he was ennobled by the Kaiser in 1895, he adopted the name August Kekule von Stradonitz, without the French acute accent over the second "e". The French accent had apparently been added to the name by Kekulé’s father during the Napoleonic occupation of Hesse by France, in order to ensure that French speakers pronounced the third syllable.