Organic synthesis –
science and art
The history of organic
synthesis starts with the German chemist Friedrich
Wöhler who, in 1828, succeeded to make
urea from simple materials. This was the first
time when organic (=living) matter was produced from
inorganic (=dead) matter. This was not believed to be
possible, at the time.
By the end of the nineteenth
century valuable colours, such as indigo and
many aniline-colours, became available through
synthesis from cheap starting materials by, among
others, Adolf von
Baeyer, Germany (1905*). At the turn of the
Fischer (1902*) in Berlin had started his elegant
elucidation of the structure and stereochemistry of
sugars. At the same time new methods to make
carbon-carbon bonds were developed by, among others,
the Frenchman Victor
At the end of the 1920's the
art of synthesis had made major advances.
Hemin, the oxygen-binding part of the red
bloodplates, was synthesised by the German, Hans
Fischer (1930*). Vitamin B6 was
synthesised in 1939 and vitamin A in 1949. The
Germans, Otto Diels and
Kurt Alder (1950*) discovered one of the most
simple and elegant methods that exists for the
synthesis of rings with six carbon atoms.
During the 1950's the
development was rapid and many challenging molecules
such as strychnine and morphine were
made synthetically. Cortisone was prepared
synthetically in 1951 by the Englishman Sir Robert
Robinson (1947*) and the American Robert B.
Woodward (1965*), penicillin in 1957 by
John C. Sheehan and chlorophyll by R.B.
Woodward in 1960.
The art of organic synthesis
continues to develop. In 1979 Herbert C.
Brown, USA and Georg
Wittig, Germany, shared the Nobel Prize in
chemistry for their development of boron and
phosphorous compounds, respectively, into useful
reagents in organic synthesis.
The discovery of the
prostaglandins was made by Sune
Bergström and Bengt
Samuelsson in Sweden and by Sir John R.
Vane in England (1982*). The prostaglandins occur
in very small amounts in the body and take part in
important life processes. With great skill, E.J.
Corey has determined the structure of many
prostaglandins and synthesized them. Through his
contributions many of these are now available to
A number of other chemicals
with complicated structures has been synthesized
during the last three decades and this year's Nobel
Laureate, Elias J. Corey, has played a key role also
in these developments. Some examples of
biologically-active compounds synthesized in Corey's
laboratory are shown in this poster.
* Nobel Prize