100th Anniversary: Death of Alexander Mitscherlich

100th Anniversary: Death of Alexander Mitscherlich

Author: ChemViews Magazine

Alexander Mitscherlich was born on May 28, 1836, in Berlin, Germany. His father was the chemist Eilhard Mitscherlich, who discovered the isomorphism of crystals. Alexander Mitscherlich was named after his godparent, the famous naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt.

Mitscherlich studied chemistry at the Universities of Göttingen and Berlin, both Germany, and received his Ph.D. in 1861 for work on the chemical composition of the minerals alum and alunite. He then worked in Göttingen with Friedrich Wöhler, a pioneer of organic chemistry, and moved to Paris, France, to join the laboratory of Adolphe Wurtz. Mitscherlich returned to Berlin when his father got sick in 1863 and completed his habilitation with work on spectral analysis. He was one of the founders of the “Deutsche Chemische Gesellschaft“, a precursor organization of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (GDCh, German Chemical Society) in 1867.

In 1868, Mitscherlich joined the newly founded “Königlich Preußische Forstakademie” (Royal Prussian forestry academy) in Hannoversch Münden, Germany, as Professor of Inorganic Sciences. There, he started to work on the industrial production of cellulose from wood. Together with his brother Richard, Mitscherlich developed an early version of the so-called sulfite process. The method uses acidic solutions of sulfites or bisulfites in pressurized reaction vessels to degrade the lignin in wood and, thus, allow its separation from the useful cellulose. The process was very important for paper and pulp production, and was widely used in this industry, first in Germany and later in Europe and North America.

Other chemists, such as Benjamin Tilghman from the United States, Carl Daniel Ekman from Sweden, and Karl Kellner from Austria, had independently developed similar processes for the production of cellulose around the same time. For many years after his invention, Mitscherlich was involved in litigation caused by patent disputes with Benjamin Tilghman. Mitscherlich declared that he was the first to develop the sulfite process for industrial use, but the courts did not recognize his claim. As a consequence, companies that had licensed the method refused to pay Mitscherlich. He was able to achieve settlements with the companies, but the disputes dragged on until 1900. Alexander Mitscherlich died on May 31, 1918, in Oberstdorf, Germany.

Alexander Mitscherlich is the answer to Guess the Chemist (77).


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