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German Trips of Chemical History, Visiting footprints of

great chemists of 19th Century

Kazuo Itoh


Translated from the original article in Preprint Chemical History Research, Vol. 37, 2010, p101, prepared for an oral presentation in Chemical History Research Annual Meeting, Tokyo, Japan, in 2010.


The organization of the alumni who graduated in 1958 from Industrial Chemistry Department of Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan, is named ISOMERS, and has been active for more than 50 years.  The word “isomers” refers to multiple molecules that have identical species and numbers of atoms but have different chemical structures. Isomers of molecules were discovered in 1823~1824 by two young German chemists, Justus Liebig who was later called Father of Chemistry,  and Friedrich Woehler who first synthesized the organic compound of urea from inorganic materials. The two chemists originally regarded each other as a rival, but after this discovery they became intimate friends who collaborated and stimulated each other.


The first reason that prompted us planning our visits to Germany was our respect to the aforementioned two great chemists, but the second was our desire to learn why Germany became the most advanced country in chemistry in only 20 years during 19th Century. Our planning of the travel started in 2003, incidentally the year of the bicentennial birthday of Liebig. We prepared for the travel during the two years prior to  the first trip by reading relevant literatures including “Kagakushidan (Chemical History Talks)” by Nozomu Yamaoka. We had our trip to Germany in 2005 and another in 2007.  At the time of this writing, the third trip is being scheduled for June 2010. In our first trip, we visited Liebig Museum in Giessen University and University of Goettingen (more formally Georg August University in Goettingen) where Woehler taught.  More details follow:


Liebig Museum in Giessen


The Liebich museum was in a stately building that reminds of a Greek pantheon.  In response to the letter of our visit sent to Professor Laqua, the head of the museum, he welcomed us at our arrival. He guided us in the museum and demonstrated some experiments of Liebig’s days using the old apparatuses. This museum was built for the purpose of preserving the chemistry class rooms and the original experimental apparatuses such as Liebig condenser and potash bulb. He mentioned that the building was being utilized in their extra curriculum programs.



University of Goettingen


In the city of  Goettingen we were greeted by Professor Tietze at the market square. He brought us to the Friedrich Woehler’s statue (on the pedestal of which the chemical symbol of urea is drawn using gray stones) and then guided us through the campus of the science and engineering school of the university. This university was founded in 1737, where more than 40 researchers have been awarded the Nobel prizes.


Reform of chemical education and human resource development in Germany


Although Liebig and Woehler both performed brilliant technical achievements, which are remembered in the history of chemistry, their greater contribution in chemistry was their educational reform.  In particular, Liebig created the pedagogical system in which each student is given a separate task such that the student observes chemical reactions through experiments and writes research reports. Because the way of teaching before Liebig was lectures only, Liebig’s style was quite revolutionary.