Before the nineteenth century, chemists generally believed that compounds obtained from living organisms were too complex to be synthesized. According to the concept of vitalism, organic matter was endowed with a "vital force". They named these compounds "organic" and directed their investigations toward inorganic materials that seemed more easily studied.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, scientists realized that organic compounds can be synthesized in the laboratory. Around 1816 Michel Chevreul started a study of soaps made from various fats and alkalis. He separated the different acids that, in combination with the alkali, produced the soap. Since these were all individual compounds, he demonstrated that it was possible to make a chemical change in various fats (which traditionally come from organic sources), producing new compounds, without "vital force". In 1828 Friedrich Wöhler produced the organic chemical urea (carbamide), a constituent of urine, from the inorganic ammonium cyanate NH4CNO, in what is now called the Wöhler synthesis. Although Wöhler was always cautious about claiming that he had disproved the theory of vital force, this event has often been thought of as a turning point.
In 1856 William Henry Perkin, while trying to manufacture quinine, accidentally manufactured the organic dye now known as Perkin's mauve. Through its great financial success, this discovery greatly increased interest in organic chemistry.
The crucial breakthrough for organic chemistry was the concept of chemical structure, developed independently and simultaneously by Friedrich August Kekulé and Archibald Scott Couper in 1858. Both men suggested that tetravalent carbon atoms could link to each other to form a carbon lattice, and that the detailed patterns of atomic bonding could be discerned by skillful interpretations of appropriate chemical reactions.
The history of organic chemistry continued with the discovery of petroleum and its separation into fractions according to boiling ranges. The conversion of different compound types or individual compounds by various chemical processes created the petroleum chemistry leading to the birth of the petrochemical industry, which successfully manufactured artificial rubbers, the various organic adhesives, the property-modifying petroleum additives, and plastics.
The pharmaceutical industry began in the last decade of the 19th century when the manufacturing of acetylsalicylic acid (more commonly referred to as aspirin) in Germany was started by Bayer. The first time a drug was systematically improved was with arsphenamine (Salvarsan). Though numerous derivatives of the dangerous toxic atoxyl were examined by Paul Ehrlich and his group, the compound with best effectiveness and toxicity characteristics was selected for production.
Although early examples of organic reactions and applications were often serendipitous, the latter half of the 19th century witnessed highly systematic studies of organic compounds. Beginning in the 20th century, progress of organic chemistry allowed the synthesis of highly complex molecules via multistep procedures. Concurrently, polymers and enzymes were understood to be large organic molecules, and petroleum was shown to be of biological origin. The process of finding new synthesis routes for a given compound is called total synthesis. Total synthesis of complex natural compounds started with urea, and increased in complexity to glucose and terpineol. In 1907, total synthesis was commercialized for the first time by Gustaf Komppa with camphor. Pharmaceutical benefits have been substantial. For example, cholesterol-related compounds have opened ways to synthesis complex human hormones and their modified derivatives. Since the start of the 20th century, complexity of total syntheses has been increasing, with examples such as lysergic acid and vitamin B12.
Biochemistry has only started in the 20th century, opening up a new chapter of organic chemistry with enormous scope. Biochemistry, like organic chemistry, primarily focuses on compounds containing carbon.
Read more about this topic: Organic Chemistry
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