Joseph Achille Le Bel was born on January 21, 1847, in Pechelbronn in the Alsace region of France. Pechelbronn was the first place in Europe where oil was produced. Oil sands were mined there commercially from about the 1740s to 1970. Le Bel’s family controlled the oil industry in Pechelbronn at the time. He was sent to the École Polytechnique in Paris, France, in 1865 to be educated in chemistry. He then worked as a research assistant with Antoine Balard and Adolphe Wurtz at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Le Bel co-discovered the basic concepts of organic stereochemistry in 1874 . He found that a compound with one asymmetric carbon atom (i.e., a carbon atom with four different substituents) can exist in two isomers that are mirror images of one another and are optically active. This breakthrough was achieved simultaneously and independently by Le Bel and Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff , the first winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Both researchers proposed the hypothesis that the number of stereoisomers of an organic compound containing no internal planes of symmetry is 2n, where n is the number of asymmetric carbon atoms. This relationship is known as the Le Bel–Van ‘t Hoff rule.
In 1882, Le Bel took over the family oil business in Pechelbronn as Director. He developed a distillation process for refining the oil, and the business flourished under his leadership. He sold the company in 1889 and returned to Paris to continue his chemical research. There, he first worked with Armand Gautier and later as an independent researcher, building a laboratory in his own house. He continued his chemical research, but later also studied cosmic rays and worked on biology and biochemistry topics.
In addition to chemistry, cosmology, and biology, Le Bel was interested in geology. He became a Member of the Société Préhistorique Française (SPF) in 1911, served as its President from 1914 to 1923, and remained Honorary President until his death. Le Bel was also a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of London. In 1893, he received the Davy Medal from the Royal Society together with Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff. He served as President of the Société Chimique de Paris—precursor of today’s Société Chimique de France (SCF, French Chemical Society)—in 1892, 1899, and 1907. Joseph Achille Le Bel died on August 6, 1930, in Paris.
Joseph Achille Le Bel is the answer to Guess the Chemist (104).
-  Sur les relations qui existent entre les formules atomiques des corps organiques et le pouvoir rotatoire de leurs dissolutions (in French),
J. A. Le Bel,
Bull. Soc. Chim. Paris 1874, 22, 337–347.
-  Voorstel tot Uitbreiding der Tegenwoordige in de Scheikunde gebruikte Structuurformules in de Ruimte, benevens een daarmee samenhangende Opmerking omtrent het Verband tusschen Optisch Actief Vermogen en chemische Constitutie van Organische Verbindingen (in Dutch),
J. H. Van ‘t Hoff,
pamphlet published by the author on September 3, 1874.
- Das Portrait: Joseph Achille Le Bel 1847–1930 (in German),
Chem. Unserer Z. 1974, 8, 143–147.
- Obituary notice: Joseph Achille Le Bel, 1847–1930,
W. J. Pope,
J. Chem. Soc. 1930, 2789–2791.
- J.-A. Le Bel: 1847–1930 (in French),
Bull. Soc. Préhist. Fr. 1930, 9, 401–404.
- Cosmologie Rationelle (in French),
J. A. Le Bel,
Imp. C. Monnoyer, Le Mans, 1925.
Also of Interest
- Commemorating Jacobus Henricus van’t Hoff,
ChemViews Mag. 2011.
100th anniversary of the death of Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff, discoverer of osmotic pressure and stereochemistry