Viktor Meyer

Viktor Meyer bigraphy, stories - German chemist

Viktor Meyer : biography

8 September 1848 – 08 August 1897

Viktor Meyer (8 September 1848 – 8 August 1897) was a German chemist and significant contributor to both organic and inorganic chemistry. He is best known for inventing an apparatus for determining vapour densities, the Viktor Meyer apparatus, and for discovering thiophene, a heterocyclic compound. He is sometimes referred to as Victor Meyer, a name used in some of his publications.


Meyer stayed one year with Bunsen for an area wide analysis of spring water. Besides this he was also able to teach some Ph.D. students. In Berlin he joined the group of Adolf Baeyer, one of his best friends in later life, attacking among other problems that of the composition of camphor.

At the age of 23 on Baeyer’s recommendation, Meyer was engaged by Fehling as his assistant at Stuttgart Polytechnic, but within a year he left to succeed Johannes Wislicenus at Zurich. There he remained for thirteen years, and it was during this period that he devised his well-known method for determining vapour densities, and carried out his experiments on the dissociation of the halogens. In 1882, on the death of Wilhelm Weith (1844-1881), professor of chemistry at Zurich University, he undertook to continue the lectures on benzene derivatives, and this led him to the discovery of thiophen. In 1885 he was chosen to succeed Hans Hübner (1837-1884) in the professorship of chemistry at Göttingen University, where stereo-chemical questions especially engaged his attention; and in 1889, on the resignation of his old master, Bunsen, he was appointed to the chair of chemistry in Heidelberg University. He died on the 8th of August 1897.

Health and suicide

Overworked and overtaxed, Meyer’s nervous system suffered, leading to several minor and major nervous breakdowns during the last years of his life. He always failed to recover completely, yet continued working. He took pills to fall asleep, but these had a damaging effect on his nervous system. In one of his depressions, Meyer decided to take his own life, and committed suicide by taking cyanide. He died at the age of 48 during the night of 7/8 August 1897 in Heidelberg.

Early life

Viktor Meyer was born in Berlin in 1848, the son of trader and cotton printer Jacques Meyer and mother, Bertha. His parents were Jewish, though he was not actively raised in the Jewish faith. Later, he was confirmed in the reformed Jewish Church. He married a Christian woman, Hedwig Davidson, and raised his children as such. He entered the gymnasium at the age of ten in the same class as his two-year older brother Richard. Although he had excellent science skills his wish to become an actor was based on his love for poetry. At a visit from his brother Richard, who was studying chemistry at the University of Heidelberg, he became attracted to chemistry.

In 1865, when not yet 17 years old but pushed by his parents, Meyer began studying chemistry at the University of Berlin, the same year that August Wilhelm von Hofmann succeeded Eilhard Mitscherlich as the Chair of Chemistry there. After one semester, Meyer went to Heidelberg to work under Robert Bunsen, where he also heard lectures on organic chemistry by Emil Erlenmeyer. As no research was required under Bunsen at the time, Meyer received his doctorate in 1867, at the age of 19. This opened the doors to a very successful career in which he became one of the most important chemists of his time.


Professional accomplishments

1867 Assistant at the laboratory of Robert Bunsen, analyzing mineral water for the government of Baden and helping students preparing their examinations
1868 Studying organic chemistry at the Gewerbe-Akademie in Berlin, guided by Adolf von Baeyer (until 1871)
1871 Position as Professor extraordinarius of organic chemistry at the Polytechnikum of Stuttgart, allowed without habilitation
1872 Position as Professor ordinarius at the Polytechnikum of Zurich
1885 Position at the University of Göttingen, occupying the famous Chair of Friedrich Wöhler
1889 Taking over the Chair of Robert Bunsen at the University of Heidelberg; Meyer was requested (by Bunsen) to take this position in 1888, but only complied after a second request in 1889