150th Birthday: Moses Gomberg

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  • Author: ChemViews
  • Published Date: 08 February 2016
  • Copyright: Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
thumbnail image: 150th Birthday: Moses Gomberg

Moses Gomberg, the "father of radical chemistry", was born on February 8, 1866, in Yelizavetgrad, Russia (today Kirovohrad, Ukraine). His family was forced to emigrate in 1884 after Gomberg's father was accused of anti-czarist activities, and settled in Chicago, IL, USA.


There, Gomberg worked menial jobs at first, learned English, and got his high school degree. He entered the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA, in 1886, and received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1890. Gomberg received his Ph.D., also from the University of Michigan, in 1894 for work on the derivatization of caffeine under the supervision of Albert B. Prescott.


Gomberg remained at the University of Michigan for most of his career, first as lecturer, from 1899 on as Assistant Professor, and from 1904 as Full Professor. He never married and shared a house in Ann Arbor with his younger sister for most of his life. Gomberg spent one year researching in Germany between 1896 and 1897, first in Adolf Baeyer's laboratory in Munich and then in Heidelberg, where he worked with Victor Meyer. Here, he sucessfully prepared tetraphenylmethane for the first time by thermal decomposition of 1-phenyl-2-trityldiazene.


After his return to Michigan, Gomberg continued his research on fully phenylated hydrocarbons. During his unsucessful attempts at the synthesis of hexaphenylethane, he discovered the first stable free radical, the triphenylmethyl (or trityl) radical. It was generated by the reaction of triphenylchloromethane with zinc under a CO2 atmosphere. The compound was very reactive towards oxygen, chlorine, bromine, and iodine, from which Gomberg concluded its radical character, even though the substance was stable for weeks.


This was very controversial, as several earlier claims of free organic radicals, for example by Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac and Robert Bunsen, had been disproven. It was not until the early 1930s that the idea of free radicals was truly accepted by the chemical community, after evidence for the short-lived methyl radical and for radical addition mechanisms had been found.


In addition, Gomberg worked on applied chemistry and developed solvents for automotive paints, as well as the first antifreeze used in cars. He also served as President of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in 1931. Moses Gomberg retired in 1936 and died on February 12, 1947. To honor Gomberg's discovery of free organic radicals, the ACS declared the University of Michigan as a "National Historic Chemical Landmark" in 2000.


Moses Gomberg is the answer to Guess the Chemist (50).


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