The Wöhler Synthesis of Urea (1828)

    Friedrich Wöhler (1800 - 1882) carried out several reactions that resulted in the production of Urea [ (NH2)2CO ], an organic component of urine that is the chief means of elimination of nitrogenous waste in mammals. Wöhler had previously investigated the inorganic properties of various elements, and was one those who introduced the idea that combinations of elements (molecules) could behave as single entities in chemical reactions.

    One such reaction used Lead Cyanate and Ammonia in aqueous solution:

    With added heat, Ammonium Cyanate decomposes to Ammonia and Cyanic acid, which in the so-called "Wöhler Synthesis" react reversibly to produce Urea:

    Wöhler's 1828 synthesis has historically been presented as the beginning of Organic Chemistry, as the first in vitro synthesis of a carbon-based chemical compound otherwise produced only in vivo by living systems. Alternatively, "The Wöhler Myth" suggests instead this discovery was more or less accidental, and that he did not set out deliberately to make an organic synthesis to disprove vitalism, a notion championed by his own teacher, Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779 - 1848).

    Wöhler wrote Berzelius, ""I cannot, so to say, hold my chemical water and must tell you that I can make urea without thereby needing to have kidneys, or anyhow, an animal, be it human or dog""

Text material ©2022 by Steven M. Carr