In the 19th century, people believed in a theory called vitalism. It said that a mysterious 'life-force' was required to make the organic chemicals found in our bodies. Hermann Kolbe was among the scientists who disproved the theory, by showing that chemicals could be made in the lab.
Acetic acid is an important chemical that has many uses in our lives. For example, a 10% solution is commonly used as vinegar! Kolbe was the first to make it in the lab. He worked out that if you took a compound like carbon disulphide, and substituted the sulphur atoms step-by-step with other groups, you could finally get acetic acid. This process is called synthesis today. Kolbe was the first to introduce this word.
The ability to make acetic acid in the lab meant two things. One, this was a cheaper way of making it, compared to the old process. The old process required spoilage of wine, which was very expensive. It also helped prove structuralism.
Today we think of chemical molecules like meccano sets. But in Kolbe's time, no one had much of an idea. John Dalton had shown that elements were made of very, very tiny particles called atoms. But how did they make molecules?
The Russian Aleksandr Butlerov had suggested that molecules were built of atoms just as furniture is made by joining parts. But how would one prove this? That's where Kolbe's work helped.
Kolbe had substituted the atoms in carbon disulphide to make acetic acid, which could have happened only if structuralism was correct. Later on, Kolbe showed many more reactions to prove the point. In the process, he also found a way of making salicylic acid. That's a compound that is used for making aspirin.
Kolbe actually hated structural theory. It was proposed without any proof, so he dismissed it as being idle and lazy. He never quite realised that the proof would come from his own laboratory!
Hermann Kolbe was born on September 27th, 1818 in Ellliehausen, Germany. From an early age he was interested in chemistry, which was an up and coming science then. He went to study with famous chemists of the time like Friedrich Wohler and then Robert Bunsen (the chemist who invented the famous burner). In 1851, he got Bunsen's job as Professor of Chemistry at the University of Marburg. In 1865 he shifted to the University of Liepzig. He died in 1884.
Kolbe trained many young chemists who have become famous scientists in their own right - Peter Griess, Ernst Beckmann, Vladimir Markovnikov and Frederick Guthrie.