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Urea and the Wohler Myth

Philip Ball tells the story of German chemist Friedrich Wöhler's creation of urea. It was the moment when chemists began to believe they could emulate and even rival nature.

Philip Ball tells the story of German chemist Friedrich Wöhler's creation of urea, an organic substance previously thought only to be produced by living creatures. Yet in 1828 Wöhler created urea from decidedly non-living substances. It was exciting because the accidental transformation seemed to cross a boundary: from inorganic to organic, from inert matter to a product of life. It's a key moment in the history of chemistry but like many scientific advances, this one has also been turned into something of a myth. To read some accounts, this humble act of chemical synthesis sounds almost akin to the 'vital spark of being' described by Mary Shelley in her book published ten years previously, when Victor Frankenstein brought dead flesh back to life.

Philip Ball sorts out fact from fiction in what Wöhler really achieved in conversation with Peter Ramberg of Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and he finds out about chemical synthesis of natural products today from Professor Sarah O'Connor of the John Innes Centre in Norwich.

Producer: Erika Wright.

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28 minutes