Chemists of the period noted that there seemed to be an essential yet inexplicable difference between the properties of the two different types of compounds. The vital force theory, sometimes called “vitalism” (vital means “life force”), was therefore proposed, and widely accepted, as a way to explain these differences, that a “vital force” existed within organic material but did not exist in any inorganic materials.
Synthesis of urea
Friedrich Wöhler is widely regarded as a pioneer in organic chemistry as a result of his synthesizing of the biological compound urea (a component of urine in many animals) utilizing what is now called “the Wöhler synthesis.”
Wöhler mixed silver or lead cyanate with ammonium nitrate; this was supposed to yield ammonium cyanate as a result of an exchange reaction, according to Berzelius’s dualism theory. Wöhler, however, discovered that the end product of this reaction is not ammonium cyanate (NH4OCN), an inorganic salt, but urea ((NH2)2CO), a biological compound. (Furthermore, heating ammonium cyanate turns it into urea.) Faced with this result, Berzelius had to concede that (NH2)2CO and NH4OCN were isomers. Until this discovery in the year 1828, it was widely believed by chemists that organic substances could only be formed under the influence of the “vital force” in the bodies of animals and plants. Wöhler’s synthesis dramatically proved that view to be false.
Urea synthesis was a critical discovery for biochemists because it showed that a compound known to be produced in nature only by biological organisms could be produced in a laboratory under controlled conditions from inanimate matter. This “in vitro” synthesis of organic matter disproved the common theory (vitalism) about the vis vitalis, a transcendent “life force” needed for producing organic compounds.
Organic vs inorganic chemistry
Although originally defined as the chemistry of biological molecules, organic chemistry has since been redefined to refer specifically to carbon compounds — even those with non-biological origin. Some carbon molecules are not considered organic, with carbon dioxide being the most well known and most common inorganic carbon compound, but such molecules are the exception and not the rule.
Organic chemistry focuses on carbon and following movement of the electrons in carbon chains and rings, and also how electrons are shared with other carbon atoms and heteroatoms. Organic chemistry is primarily concerned with the properties of covalent bonds and non-metallic elements, though ions and metals do play critical roles in some reactions.
The applications of organic chemistry are myriad, and include all sorts of plastics, dyes, flavorings, scents, detergents, explosives, fuels and many, many other products. Read the ingredient list for almost any kind of food that you eat — or even your shampoo bottle — and you will see the handiwork of organic chemists listed there.
Major advances in the field of organic chemistry
Of course a chemistry text should at least mention Antoine Laurent Lavoisier. The French chemist is often called the “Father of Modern Chemistry” and his place is first in any pantheon of great chemistry figures. Your general chemistry textbook should contain information on the specific work and discoveries of Lavoisier — they will not be repeated here because his discoveries did not relate directly to organic chemistry in particular. Berzelius and Wöhler are discussed above, and their work was foundational to the specific field of organic chemistry. After those two, three more scientists are famed for independently proposing the elements of structural theory. Those chemists were August Kekulé, Archibald Couper, and Alexander Butlerov.
Kekulé was a German, an architect by training, and he was perhaps the first to propose that isomerism was due to carbon’s proclivity towards forming four bonds. Its ability to bond with up to four other atoms made it ideal for forming long chains of atoms in a single molecule, and also made it possible for the same number of atoms to be connected in an enormous variety of ways. Couper, a Scot, and Butlerov, a Russian, came to many of the same conclusions at the same time or just a short time after.
Through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, experimental results brought to light much new knowledge about atoms, molecules, and molecular bonding. In 1916 it was Gilbert Lewis of U.C. Berkeley who described covalent bonding largely as we know it today (electron-sharing). Nobel laureate Linus Pauling further developed Lewis’ concepts by proposing resonance while he was at the California Institute of Technology. At about the same time, Sir Robert Robinson of Oxford University focused primarily on the electrons of atoms as the engines of molecular change. Sir Christopher Ingold of University College, London, organized what was known of organic chemical reactions by arranging them in schemes we now know as mechanisms, in order to better understand the sequence of changes in a synthesis or reaction.
The field of organic chemistry is probably the most active and important field of chemistry at the moment, due to its extreme applicability to both biochemistry (especially in the pharmaceutical industry) and petrochemistry (especially in the energy industry). Organic chemistry has a relatively recent history, but it will have an enormously important future, affecting the lives of everyone around the world for many, many years to come.