Emil Hermann Fischer Biography (1852-1919)


Emil Hermann Fischer was born on October 9, 1852 in Euskirchen, Germany. Withfive older sisters, he was the only son of Laurenz Fischer and Julie Poensgen Fischer. Fischer described his youth as happy in his unfinished autobiography, Aus meinem Leben (Out of my Life). Fischer graduated at the top ofhis class from the Gymnasium (high school) of Bonn in 1869. He entered the University of Bonn in the spring of 1871.

After less than a year at the University of Bonn, Fischer transferred to Strasbourg where he studied under the noted chemist, Adolf von Baeyer. For his doctorate Fischer did research on fluorescein, a coal tar dye that shows a fineyellow-green fluorescence in solution, and is used to trace water through systems. Fischer's researches into coal, coal tar, and the synthesis of organicchemicals, did much to build the German dye industry.

Fischer received his doctoral degree in 1874 from Strasbourg, but he continued his research on coal tar dyes with a cousin, Otto Philipp Fischer, until 1878. Ultimately he acquired a number of patents for industrially useful chemicals. In 1875 Fischer was invited to follow Baeyer to the University of Munichwhere Fischer became associate professor of analytical chemistry in 1879. His researches included the discovery of a new compound, phenylhydrazine, a chemical he later used extensively in research on sugars. By 1878 he figured outthe chemical formula for phenylhydrazine, and this discovery stimulated other researches leading to the development of such synthetic drugs as novocaine.In 1881 Fischer began investigations into a new field, purine chemistry (part of a group of nucleic acids), identifying three amino acids and synthesizing many more. This research resulted in many more advances in the German drugindustry.

Fischer left in 1882 to accept the position of professor of chemistry at theUniversity of Erlangen, near Nuremberg. At Erlangen, Fischer continued his work on purines and began to study carbohydrates in 1884. His subsequent work with phenylhydrazine in an unventilated laboratory caused him to suffer the effects of phenylhydrazine poisoning which attacks the kidney, liver, and respiratory system. Upon his recovery in 1885 he accepted a chair in Würzburg. In 1888 Fischer married Agnes Gerlach. They had three sons before she diedin 1895. While Fischer was at Würzburg he was honored with a Bavarian medal.

In 1892 Fischer accepted the position of professor in charge of the chemistrydepartment at the University of Berlin, the most prestigious position for anacademic chemist in Germany at that time. He was offered full freedom in theconstruction of a new building at the chemical institute of Berlin, and hissubsequent design of a well-ventilated laboratory became a model for university laboratories all over the world. In addition, his teaching methods led tothe formation of small groups of students involved in basic scientific research. With the help of his cooperative teams of students, and fellow researchers from many countries, he designed a careful plan for each research project.As the work progressed he always looked for deviations from the expected results. Each unusual occurrence was researched systematically to its conclusion.This strategy permanently influenced both graduate education in chemistry and the expectations of universities for research and publication from their professors worldwide.

Fischer's researches into sugar and purines had proven especially successful.He synthesized about one hundred and thirty purines, which included caffeine, theophylline (used in the preparation of the motion sickness drug Dramamine), and uric acid. In addition, after studying the three-dimensional shapes ofsugar molecules, Fischer synthesized glucose as well as about thirty other sugars. By 1899 Fischer finished most of his work on sugars and purines and began research on proteins and enzymes in an effort to identify their chemicalnature. Fischer was elected to membership in the Academy of Sciences, and, in1902, he received the Nobel Prize "for his synthesis in the groups of sugarsand purine," as quoted by Eduard Farber in Nobel Prize Winners in Chemistry. In 1909 he received the Helmholtz Medal for his work on sugar and protein chemistry.

Determined to keep the preeminent position of world leader in chemical research for Germany, a position he did much to create, he gathered support from industry, government, and other scientists to establish a number of research institutes--the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Sciences, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin-Dahlem, and the Kaiser WilhelmInstitute for Coal Research in Mulheim-Ruhr. As director of the University ofBerlin laboratories he started a radiochemistry laboratory where, years after his death, scientists Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner worked on research that led to the fission of uranium and the ultimate development of the atomic bomb.

World War I took Fischer away from most of his experimental investigations ashe redirected his research concentrations toward the war effort. The Britishblockade would have brought the defeat of Germany by 1915 had Fischer and his colleagues not succeeded in using the resources they had to synthesize muchof what they could no longer get on the world market. He led the developmentof synthetic saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and nitric acid, both used in themanufacture of explosives. As food became in short supply he coordinated research and production of synthetic fertilizers. Fischer directed research to replace diminishing supplies of camphor (used to stabilize gunpowder) and pyrites which supplied sulfur for explosives.

Research alone could not win the war, and not all of Fischer's projects weresuccessful. It was obvious to Fischer that Germany would be defeated. In an effort to organize the rebuilding of chemical research and industry in Germanyto gain back the leadership it had before the war, Fischer and a friend madeplans to form the German Society for the Advancement of Chemical Instruction.

Fischer lost his two younger sons in the war, which left him depressed, and he also was suffering from cancer. Emil Fischer died in Berlin, July 15, 1919.His remaining son, Hermann Otto Laurenz Fischer (1888-1960) went on to become a Professor of Biochemistry at the University of California in Berkeley. OnOctober 9, 1952, Fischer's son dedicated the Emil Fischer Library at the University of California which is the repository of the collected works of Fischer, including the manuscript for his autobiography, research files, and Fischer's correspondences in World War I.

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