Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Life and Work of the Jewish Chemist: Otto Wallach

The following is a short essay (yes, believe it or not I consider it a short essay) that I (Rebekah) wrote.  My intentions are to allow homeschoolers an opportunity to view a formally written essay, and to help inquisitive readers learn more about Otto Wallach, the Nobel Prize recipient for chemistry in 1910.

Written on November 21, 2012 
by Rebekah Pena      
                 The Life and Work of the Jewish Chemist: Otto Wallach

Throughout history, the Jewish people have played an immense role in the advancement and development of modern science.  In fact, in chemistry alone, approximately twenty percent of Nobel Prize laureates have been of Jewish descent.  As a result, it is no surprise to learn that the German Chemist, Otto Wallach,who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1910 (a single award), was indeed a Jew: it was his hard work with alicyclic compounds which brought about such recognition, and there is no doubt his scientific contributions ultimately culminated in the industrial production of camphor and synthetic perfumes (Chemistry).  It is of significant remark, however, that although Wallach was of Jewish descent, his father’s family had beforehand converted to Lutheranism and his mother was not Jewish but an ethnic German Protestant (Personal Profile).  Hence, perhaps it is safe to assert that Wallach must also have considered himself Protestant.
From a very young age, Otto Wallach became fascinated with chemistry and historical art—two disciplines he pursued fervently throughout his life.  His professional studies in chemistry began at the University of Göttingen in the beginning of 1867; by 1869, he had achieved his doctorate in chemistry.  Wallach’s doctoral dissertation concerned the several isomers of toluene.  Toluene, one of the many products derived from the distillation of coal, is often used as a solvent in the production of fragrances.Thus, it was Wallach’s doctoral studies which equipped him for future investigations (Otto Wallach Notable Scientists).
Subsequent to his graduation, Wallach went on to work as a professor at the University of Bonn, where he assisted the renowned German scientist, August Kekulé, who was responsible for the discovery of the structural formula of benzene (a coal product similar to toluene).   In 1879, Wallach was appointed to teach pharmacy; however, he had limited knowledge of essential oils utilized in medicines, and decided to conduct research in order to develop a better understanding.  Fortunately, after retirement, Kekulé had left abandoned samples of essential oils which he had felt were too complex to analyze. Wallach,being an incredibly persistent researcher, went through the elaborate undertaking of distilling and redistilling each sample. By 1881, he had successfully discovered eight unique (and yet similar) fragrant substances which he ultimately termed “terpenes”. Some common examples of naturally occurring terpenes are rose oil, peppermint, and menthol (Otto Wallach World of Chemistry).
Wallach continued working with colleagues on synthesizing new and analogous compounds, and by 1887, Wallach discovered that these terpenes resulted from a multiple of isoprene units (precise arrangements of five carbon rings) (Otto Wallach World of Scientific Discovery). In 1889, Otto Wallach was eventually (and inevitably) appointed director of the Chemical Institute at the University of Göttingen; there, he continued his work concerning the molecular structure of essential oils, and in 1909 published his consequent deductions in Terpene und Campher (Otto Wallach Jewish VirtualLibrary.)  Flowing his publication, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his groundbreaking work with acyclic compounds in 1910, and continued to be recognized in subsequent years: the Davy Medal in Gold and Silver (in 1912), and the Königlicher Kronorden II. Klasse (in 1915) are only a few examples of the many awards he later received (Otto Wallach – Biography).
          In conclusion, one must not overlook the immense significance Otto Wallach’s contributions have played in modern chemistry.  In the words of the Nobel Committee, Wallach was awarded the Nobel Prize "in recognition of his services to organic chemistry and the chemical industry by his pioneer work in the field of alicyclic compounds"(The Nobel Prize). Otto Wallach’s discoveries eventually spawned the inquisitiveness and exploration of successive researchers who ultimately developed new and innovative ways of utilizing terpenes in medicines, flavorings, and perfumes.  The knowledge of terpenes in essential oils unequivocally transformed the face of the fragrance industry—guard against falsification was now systematically possible. Otto Wallach continued his work until eighty years of age, and died a bachelor in 1931, one month prior to his eighty-fourth birthday (Otto Wallach World of Chemistry).  Overall, it becomes apparent that Wallach’s life work was more than revolutionary in the field of modern chemistry.

                                           Works Cited
"Chemistry."EncyclopaediaJudaica.Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik.2nd ed. Vol. 4. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 592-593. Gale World History In Context. Web. 17 Nov. 2012.
"Otto Wallach – Biography." 19 Nov 2012                                   
"Otto Wallach."Notable Scientists from 1900 to the Present.Ed. Brigham Narins. Detroit: Gale Group, 2008. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.
“Otto Wallach.” 2012. Web. 17 November 2012.
"Otto Wallach."World of Chemistry.Gale, 2006.Gale Biography In Context. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.
“Personal Profile – Otto Wallach.” Web. 17 November 2012.
"The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1910" 19 Nov 2012