Jacobus Henricus van’t Hoff

Jacobus Henricus van’t Hoff

Jacobus Henricus van’t Hoff in 1904. Courtesy Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection, Department of Special Collections, University of Pennsylvania Library.

The Dutch scientist Jacobus Henricus van’t Hoff (1852–1911) was a pioneer in the field of stereochemistry, which deals with the spatial arrangements of atoms within molecules. In 1872, as a graduate student, van’t Hoff went to Bonn to study for a year. From August Kekulé, he learned of a possible tetrahedral arrangement of the valence bonds of carbon, proposed by the Russian chemist Alexander Butlerov in 1862. In 1873, after he had moved to Paris to work with Charles Adolphe Wurtz, van’t Hoff realized that the phenomenon of optical activity possessed by some organic molecules—their ability to rotate plane-polarized light—could be explained by the two possible arrangements of four different substituents in the space around a carbon atom. This theory provided substantial indication that the molecular structures being discussed by the chemists of the time had a physical reality in three-dimensional space and were not just aids to conceptualizing molecules. (Another graduate student working in Wurtz’s laboratory, Joseph Achille Le Bel, arrived at the same explanation of optical activity independently.)

Van’t Hoff disseminated his stereochemical ideas to leading chemists of the day by sending them three-dimensional paper models of tetrahedral molecules, like these now housed in the Leiden Museum. Photograph courtesy O. Bertrand Ramsay.

Van’t Hoff disseminated his stereochemical ideas to leading chemists of the day by sending them 3-D paper models of tetrahedral molecules, like these now housed in the Leiden Museum. Photograph courtesy O. Bertrand Ramsay.

Van’t Hoff returned to the Netherlands to complete his doctoral degree. He was soon appointed lecturer in theoretical and physical chemistry at the University of Amsterdam, where he stayed for 20 years. There he conducted the studies of reaction rates, chemical equilibrium, chemical affinity, and osmotic pressures that helped found the discipline of physical chemistry. In 1896 he moved to the University of Berlin, and in 1901 he became the first Nobel laureate in chemistry for his work in physical chemistry.

Hear It Firsthand

The Center for Oral History captures and preserves the stories of notable figures in chemistry and related fields, with over 425 oral histories that deal with various aspects of science, of scientists, and of scientific practices. For more information please visit CHF’s Oral History Program or e-mail oralhistory@
chemheritage.org
.

Need Meeting Space?

CHF’s state-of-the-art conference center is in Philadelphia’s beautiful historic district.

 

Connect with CHF

Distillations

Listen to the latest episodes of CHF’s award-winning science podcast.