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Making Natural Products in the Lab

Philip Ball tells the story of how 19th century chemist Friedrich Wöhler’s made a natural product in the lab

Philip Ball tells the science 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 Wohler really achieved in conversation with Peter Ramberg of Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and finds out about chemical synthesis of natural products today from Professor Sarah O’Connor of the John Innes Centre.

Producer: Erika Wright

(Image: Friedrich Wohler, c 1850. Photogravure after a drawing by Hoffman, c 1850. From a collection of portraits of scientists published by Photographische Gesellschaft, Berlin, c 1910. Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

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