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Gymnasium and University

In 1831 Hermann entered the Göttingen Gymnasium, living at first with his maternal grandfather Professor Hempel at Lange Geismarstrasse 230, a short walk from the Gymnasium on Wilhelmsplatz in the heart of the old city. After Hempel's death (1834), he lived in the Gymnasium complex itself in the home of the Gymnasium's director, the philologist G. F. Grotefend, who, curiously, had had Wöhler as a pupil in Frankfurt twenty years earlier. In both of these residences, Kolbe was exposed to cultured academic households. A possibly even stronger influence was a close friendship with a classmate, a member of the Hanoverian nobility named von dem Knesebeck. Knesebeck was acquainted with the young Privatdozent at the University of Göttingen, Robert Bunsen, who informally instructed him in chemistry. Knesebeck and Bunsen both grew up in Göttingen, and one can imagine that their families may have been acquainted. Knesebeck constructed a small laboratory in his father's garden house, where he shared chemical arcana with the young Hermann. Kolbe later recollected that these events in the summer of 1837 induced him to give up his ambition to follow his father into the ministry, as his father wished, and turn to the academic study of chemistry. Unfortunately, his


friendship with his schoolmate was of short duration. One day in class Knesebeck became ill; Hermann took him to his room, only to have his friend die in his arms. An overdose of opium was blamed, but whether intentional (he had a troubled relationship with his stepmother) or accidental was not determined.[28]

Hermann took a second-class Abitur in April 1838. Unfortunately, the Gymnasium's records from this period have not survived; consistent with his overall score, he is said to have been a good but not exceptional student. Ost wrote

His friends from his years at school depict him as a boy who was eager to learn, who thoroughly studied whatever had once attracted his attention. . . . Kolbe did not possess the capability of learning effortlessly; rather, his natural gift consisted in the drive to direct himself resolutely toward fixed goals, and to immerse himself to the depths in whatever subject he attacked.[29]

Kolbe matriculated at the University of Göttingen for summer semester 1838, now intent upon a career as an academic chemist. He took two semesters of physics with J. B. Listing (Weber's successor), three of mineralogy and geology with J. F. L. Hausmann, two of mathematics with Georg Ulrich, and a course in metaphysics from J. F. Herbart. He resided at Burgstrasse 332, across from the Gymnasium. Kolbe's leaving certificate from the university attests that he studied all these subjects with "exceptional diligence," his only black mark being a four-day incarceration in the student jail on account of having insulted an unnamed personage.[30]

Of greatest importance, Kolbe studied chemistry with Friedrich Wöhler. He attended Wöhler's practicum during each of the eight semesters he spent at Göttingen, and during three of these, it was his only academic occupation. We have examined Wöhler's background and early career in chapter 1. Here it is relevant to underline the attractiveness of Wöhler's teaching and his wholehearted—and single-minded—commitment to his science. A fundamentally nonpolitical man, the traumatic episode of Ernst August's revocation of Hanover's constitution and the storm over the Göttingen Seven, which occurred eighteen months after Wöhler's arrival and six months before Kolbe's matriculation, scarcely seemed to touch his consciousness.[31]

As noted in chapter 1, Kolbe was only the third Göttingen student to register for chemistry after Wöhler's arrival there (the first two are known only from their matriculation entries). It was precisely at this time that both Wöhler and Liebig were, beginning to attract comparatively large numbers of students to their lectures and especially their


labs. Most of these were pharmacy and medical students, but the chemistry contingent, initially quite small, increased rapidly during the early 1840s in both universities. This constituted the first sizable contingent of serious chemistry students in history.

Kolbe's progress, however, seems to have been slower than some of his younger compatriots, for it was not until summer semester 1840 that Kolbe was allowed to perform real research. By this time, a real cohort of research students had emerged. Kolbe's compatriots included Carl Voelckel and Georg Schnedermann (Wilhelm Knop arrived in 1841), all of whom were to begin successful, though admittedly modest, academic careers before Kolbe's first professorial call. Kolbe's first research assignment, given to him by Wöhler, was to study a reaction first published by Döbereiner eighteen years earlier, namely, the preparation of formic acid by oxidizing larger organic molecules. Kolbe distilled starch and alcohol with pyrolusite and sulfuric acid and isolated ethyl formate from the reaction mixture. Neither Kolbe nor Wöhler continued this line of investigation. Wöhler published this note under his name alone, giving Kolbe credit within the article.[32]

Kolbe's second assignment was the analysis of fusel oil residue in grain alcohol. Wöhler described his results in a letter to Berzelius—at variance with the only previous analysis of the material—as "striking". Berzelius mentioned the result in his Jahresbericht for 1842, naming Kolbe explicitly. The paper was subsequently published in Liebig's Annalen —Kolbe's first scientific publication. Kolbe related in later years how Wöhler subjected this first manuscript to a stringent linguistic critique, forcing him to eliminate excess verbiage and to describe the factual details in a direct and clear fashion.[33]

About the time this paper was submitted, Kolbe suffered an attack of jaundice, and he spent the winter of 1841-1842 at home in Lutterhausen. By the spring of 1842 he was sufficiently recovered to begin his dissertation work with Wöhler. This work had been well begun but was by no means completed when Wöhler seized upon an opportunity for Kolbe. Robert Bunsen, Wöhler's successor in Kassel, had been called to Marburg in 1839. Wöhler had sent Voelckel to be Bunsen's Assistent late in 1841, but after one year Voelckel accepted a call to the cantonal school in Solothurn, Switzerland. So now Wöhler recommended his promising student Kolbe, not yet Ph.D., as Assistent for Bunsen, a position boasting the not exactly munificent salary of 200 thalers per year.[34]

Kolbe spent three years with Bunsen and derived great profit from his contact with the only slightly older man. Indeed, Bunsen became Kolbe's Doktorvater , Kolbe officially qualifying for the doctorate on 23 October 1843. Referring to the late 1840s, Tyndall reminisced


Bunsen was a man of fine presence, tall, handsome, courteous, and without a trace of affectation or pedantry. He merged himself in his subject: his exposition was lucid, and his language pure; he spoke with the clear Hanoverian accent which is so pleasant to English ears; he was every inch a gentleman. After some experience of my own, I still look back on Bunsen as the nearest approach to my ideal of a university teacher.[35]

The circumstances that Bunsen, like' Kolbe, was a native Göttinger, and that Kolbe's first introduction to chemical operations had come through Knesebeck second-hand from Bunsen, could only have increased Kolbe's regard. In later years, his relationship with Wöhler cooled somewhat (as happened with most of Kolbe's friendships) but never his ties to Bunsen. It may seem anomalous that the kind and gentlemanly Bunsen never lost his affection for his obstreperous student. This circumstance may be partly explained by the fact that in 1844 Kolbe saved Bunsen's life by carrying him unconscious out of a laboratory filled with carbon monoxide.[36]

Heinrich Debus, who studied with Bunsen from 1845 to 1847 and then served as his assistant until 1851, has provided a detailed description of Bunsen's lectures and practicum in Marburg. A set of student lecture notes from 1850 has also survived.[37] Bunsen was clearly one of the century's best lecturers on chemistry, and his numerous and apposite illustrative experiments never failed. He especially loved physical and inorganic chemistry, and he emphasized precise quantitative measurements in all operations. The small amount of theory included in his courses was thoroughly in the spirit of Berzelius' electrochemical dualism. His most popular course was his famous Publikum on electrochemistry, where every seat was always occupied.

In the early 1840s Bunsen taught about five to ten Praktikanten at a time, although there were sixteen by winter semester 1845/46 and occasionally over twenty in the late 1840s. Most were pharmacy or medical students who only worked the standard eight hours per week; normally four to six were advanced workers, mostly chemistry majors, who had permission to work all day every day in the lab. The practicum course started with two or three weeks on the nature of flame and blowpipe analysis. The remainder of the semester was devoted to wet qualitative analysis, for which each student analyzed (at his own pace) progressively more challenging unknowns. For four to six weeks of the analytical portion, Bunsen provided most of the supervision, but as the students gained knowledge and confidence he turned much of the burden over to his assistant. However, he was always present in the laboratory—supervising or doing his own research—to answer any student's question.


Kolbe's duties as Assistent included instruction and supervision of the Praktikanten in the laboratory and assisting Bunsen with preparations for his lecture demonstrations. Kolbe also had time and use of the lab for his own research. Why he never sought to qualify as Privatdozent is not clear; certainly his research was of the requisite quality and quantity for the necessary thesis (the Habilitationsschrift ). A final occupation of his first years in Marburg was the preparation of a German translation of the first volume of Gerritt Mulder's Proeve eener algemeene physiologische scheikunde (Rotterdam, 1844). Wöhler had no doubt recommended him for this purpose to the Braunschweig publisher Eduard Vieweg, whom he had gotten to know through their mutual friend Liebig. The first seventeen letters by Kolbe to Vieweg, of what would become a total of 524 extending over forty years, concern this translation.[38]

Wöhler and Bunsen, Kolbe's two direct mentors, had much in common, and their influence on Kolbe was strong and unmistakable. Both chemists were enormously prolific and, moreover, extraordinarily skilled, inventive, and precise in laboratory operations. Wöhler, thoroughly schooled by the master Berzelius, must have often repeated to his own students his teacher's well-remembered injunction against "geschwind aber schlecht" (speedy but poor) experiments, and he provided his students innumerable models of research following this ideal. Bunsen, a virtuoso if there ever was one, was also famous for the care and accuracy of his work. In the 1830s he worked out methods for the analysis of mixed gases that were far superior to those previously used and that were only slowly spread from his laboratory. In 1841 he developed a much improved carbon-zinc battery that could be used for electrolysis experiments as well as more practical applications. Kolbe was to make immediate and highly productive use of both of these innovations.

Wöhler and Bunsen were also alike in their brilliant teaching abilities, their predilection for experimental investigations, and their habitual avoidance of theory. This is not to suggest that they always ignored the theoretical implications of their studies, nor to deny that many of their papers were theoretically important. Wöhler's work on urea and benzoyl derivatives and Bunsen's work on cacodyl are examples of theoretically rich papers. But, significantly, both scientists left the discipline of organic chemistry just when it began to explode theoretically in the early 1840s—and just when Kolbe arrived on the scene—and neither of them ever returned to the field in the succeeding decades.[39] After 1843 Bunsen excluded organic chemistry ever more effectively from both his teaching and his research. That Kolbe, the student of both of these men, became a theoretically inclined organic


chemist is curious but not truly anomalous. After all, both were still doing organic chemistry when Kolbe was their student, and the strong theoretical orientation of Wöhler's teacher Berzelius and Wöhler's best friend Liebig were clearly of decisive influence on Kolbe's development.

There were also a variety of personal bonds between Wöhler and Bunsen. Since their first meeting in Giessen in 1832, their lives became curiously entwined. Stromeyer was Bunsen's Doktorvater and Wöhler's Doktorgrossvater (through Leopold Gmelin); the decisive scientific influence for both Wöhler and Bunsen, however, was exerted by Berzelius. As Privatdozent in Göttingen, Bunsen succeeded Stromeyer unofficially and temporarily until Wöhler replaced him; Bunsen then took over Wöhler's position in Kassel. Three years later, he succeeded Wöhler's first chemistry professor in Marburg, Wurzer. When Bunsen started his practicum in 1840, he closely imitated that which Wöhler had begun in Göttingen, even to the same eight hours of the week. Finally, Wöhler provided Bunsen with two of his first Assistenten, Voelckel and Kolbe. Their commonalities in personality, temperament, and scientific style resulted in strong bonds of mutual regard.

In conclusion, Kolbe must have felt it extremely natural and comfortable to work in Marburg after his education in Göttingen. Certainly he was given no reason to doubt the basis of the science of chemistry in Berzelian electrochemical dualism. 'This psychological and theoretical commitment was only increased by the research he carried out at both universities.

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