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Friedrich August KEKULE, later Kekulé von Stradonitz.

Born: Darmstadt, Germany, 7th September 1829.
Died: Bonn, 13th July 1896.

Kekulé originally studied architecture, but became interested in Chemistry when he heard Liebig (of condenser fame) give evidence in a murder trial. His creative period began with a stay in London (1854-5) as assistant to J Stenhouse at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. From 1855-58 he was Privatdozent (Lecturer) in Heidelberg, where he debated with J F W von Baeyer (of strain theory), and was then successively professor at Ghent (1858) and Bonn (1867)

Kekulé was apparently neither a particularly good practical chemist nor an inspiring teacher. His main contributions to chemistry were theoretical and speculative. At the time that he began his research most chemists thought that the structure of molecules was unknowable, since reactions would disturb the structure unpredictably. Kekulé told of a ‘waking dream’ on a London ‘bus, in which he had seen the atoms grouping themselves in space. In 1858 he postulated that

  • carbon atoms can combine with one another to form chains of any length and complexity;
  • the valency of carbon is always four;
  • the study of reaction products can give information about structure.

Kekulé did not develop his structure theory, with the sole and spectacular exception of his solution to the problem of the structure of benzene (1865). Kekulé never finished his major work, Lehrbuch der Organischen Chemie (1859 onwards), but it was influential in spreading his ideas.

Kekulé was married firstly in 1862, but his wife died in childbirth. In 1876 he married again, unhappily, though had three more children despite in the same year suffering an attack of measles that affected his health for the remainder of his life. He produced no significant work after about 1876.

[Adapted from Farrar W. V., in Williams T., ed, ‘Biographical Dictionary of Scientists’, HarperCollins 1994.]

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