Fischer, Emil, 1852-1919

Alternative names
Birth 1852-10-09
Death 1919-07-15

Biographical notes:

German biochemist.

From the description of Emil Fischer papers, 1876-1919. (University of California, Berkeley). WorldCat record id: 227467251

From the description of Emil Fischer papers : Additions, 1876-1960. (University of California, Berkeley). WorldCat record id: 25809739

German chemist.

From the description of Autograph letters signed (2) : Bordighera, and Berlin, to J.W. Brühl in Heidelberg, 1889 Apr. 9 and 1899 (postmark March) Feb. 2. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270532942

Biographical Sketch

Emil Fischer, biochemist and Nobel Prize recipient, was born on October 9, 1852, at Euskirchen, near Bonn in Germany. Educated in Euskirchen and Bonn, in 1869 he was apprenticed for a short while to a brother-in-law, Ernst Friedrichs, a lumber merchant. Since he showed no aptitude for business, he soon returned to school in Bonn, where he particularly favored mathematics and physics. His father, however, urged him to take chemistry, a more practical science, and thus he became a pupil of August Kekulé in 1871. One year later he transferred to the University of Strasbourg to study under Adolf von Baeyer, graduating in 1875. Here he investigated beer-making organisms, a foundation for some of his future work with sugar and yeast. And from his association at this period with Dr. Ernst Fischer evolved his lifelong interest in experimental drugs. His isolation of the chemical compound of phenyl-hydrazine, while an assistant at the Strasbourg laboratory in 1875, was to form the cornerstone for much of his subsequent research, culminating in the synthesis of sugar some twelve years later.

During the next three years in Munich, where Fischer had followed his master, Baeyer, he and his cousin, Otto Fischer, analyzed the composition of rosaniline bases, giving new impetus to the dye industry. Appointed Privat Dozent at the University of Munich in 1878, Fischer was named professor in 1879, and took charge of the analytical division of Baeyer's laboratory. Here he explored caffeine and theobromine and their derivatives, which in turn led to the classification of purine derivatives.

From Munich, Fischer went on to Erlangen in 1882, to Würzburg in 1885, and in the fall of 1892 to Berlin, where, as successor to A. W. von Hofmann, he superintended the construction of a new laboratory, and pursued his study of the synthesis of natural sugars and of fermentation. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Fischer turned his attention to proteins, developing the so-called ester method, a process which facilitated qualitative and quantitative analysis of proteins. He then branched out into polypeptides and peptones with their endless synthetic variants.

While much of Fischer's work was of a theoretical nature, many facets proved applicable to industry. His research into the composition of the tannin used in the tanning industry led to the production of valuable synthetic tanning compounds. The chemical industry often adopted to their use methods devised in Fischer's laboratory. Much interested in pharmaceutics, he was intimately associated in the development and manufacture of Veronal, Sajodin (a tasteless non-injurious compound), caffeine, and various bromide preparations. At the outbreak of World War I Fischer was involved in experimental studies with anti-cancer and diabetes drugs.

During the war years, preoccupied by the lack of vital foodstuffs available in Germany, Fischer channeled his efforts to the utilization and transformation of raw materials into products suitable for human and animal consumption, such as the conversion of straw into digestible fodder for horses and cattle, and the preservation of vegetables, as well as the production of synthetic substitutes for coffee and butter. He was also instrumental in producing nitric acid as a replacement for the Chilean saltpeter used in making munitions, and provided synthetic substitutes for camphor.

The fame of Fischer's teaching and the extensive publication of his experiments, models of clarity and succinctly recorded, attracted many promising young scientists to his laboratory, which turned out proficient and capable chemists, in great demand in industry. And the honors he won were numerous, including the Nobel Prize awarded him in 1902 for his work in the purine and sugar groups. His memberships in honorary and scientific organizations both in Germany and abroad numbered sixty-eight, according to Fischer himself. Fischer's unremitting efforts spearheaded the creation of the famed Kaiser-Wilhelm Institut für Chemie, a research foundation independent of teaching duties. In his last years, concerned over the plight of scientists during the war, he instigated the founding of the Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Förderung des chemischen Unterrichts, a society formed to encourage and to assist financially promising young chemists.

Always frail, his health further undermined from early days by the poisonous fumes of mercury and phenyl-hydrazine, saddened by the deaths of two of his sons during the war, and worn by constant effort, Emil Fischer died of cancer in Berlin on July 15, 1919.

From the guide to the Emil Fischer Papers, 1876-1919, (The Bancroft Library)


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  • World War, 1914-1918
  • Biochemistry--Research
  • Biochemists--Biography


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  • Germany (as recorded)