The Fischer Projection
Biography of Hermann Emil Fischer
Hermann Emil Fischer was born on October 9, 1852 in Euskirchen near Cologne, Germany. His father was a successful entrepeneur. Disregarding his father's wishes, H. E. Fischer started studying chemistry at the universities of Bonn and Strasbourg in 1871. Consequently, he did not take over the family business. In 1874, H. E. Fischer did his doctorate at Adolf von Bayer in Strasbourg. Afterwards, he moved to Munich where he habilitated in 1878 and got a teaching post as a professor one year later. Additionally, he also taught and did research in Erlangen (1882, chair in chemistry), in Würzburg (1885), and in Berlin (1892) at the First Chemical Institute of the Royal Friedrich Wilhelm University (today: Humboldt University of Berlin).
H. E. Fischer's fundamental researches on the constitution and configuration of carbohydrates, enzymes, proteins, and purines were milestones in the investigation of biological cells. For his work on the constitution and configuration of carbohydrates he was honoured with the Nobel Price in chemistry in 1902. Also well-known is Fischer's synthesis of dimethylbarbituric acid. In 1902, Fischer and the physiologist Joseph Freiherr von Mering (1849 - 1908) were able to show the narcotic effect of dimethylbarbituric acid for the first time ever. Afterwards, it was put on the market as soporific by the pharmaceutical companies Merck (Darmstadt) and Bayer (Leverkusen) under the trade name Veronal in 1903. Since then, many people were able to sleep peacefully throughout the night. By exchanging the ethyl groups for propyl groups H. E. Fischer obtained double the effect of the strong soporific dipropylbarbituric acid in 1905. This was put on the market under the trade name Proponal. In 1912, H. E. Fischer synthesized the chiral phenylethylbarbituric acid, of which the narcotic effect is very close to that of Veronal. However, because of its anticonvulsive effect, it was put on the market under the trade name Luminal.
While he was investigating carbohydrates H. E. Fischer discovered phenylhydrazine as reagent for separating and identifying carbohydrates by crystallization. Phenylhydrazine is a highly toxic blood poison that is formed as metabolite of aniline in the human organism. In addition, it causes chronic eczemas and severe stomach and intestinal trouble. As a result of his investigation of purines, H. E. Fischer formed the basis of the synthesis of caffeine and contributed to the understanding of the cell nucleus and its components, which contain the genetic information.
H. E. Fischer also developed a method of detecting glucose in human urine by formation of glucose phenylosazone and the so-called Fischer projection, which is used for illustrating molecules with several chirality centers on a two-dimensional plane. In 1902, he introduced the vacuum distillation together with the chemist Carl Dietrich Harries (1866 bis 1923). As a result, heat-sensitive liquids could be destilled at low temperatures for the first time ever.
H. E. Fischer was also an excellent scientific manager and university lecturer. The chemical institute in the Hessian street in Berlin was built and opened in 1900 according to his plans. It is from this unique school of organic chemistry from which several well-known chemists came. Among them have been the Nobel Price winners Otto Diels (1876 - 1954, Nobel Price 1950), Hans Fischer (1881 - 1945, Nobel Price 1930), Otto H. Warburg (1883 - 1970, Nobel Price 1931), and Adolf Windaus (1876 - 1959, Nobel Price 1928). In 1911, H. E. Fischer played a decisive role in the formation and construction of the Kaiser Wilhelm institutes, which highlighted a new form of organized scientific research. After World War II, the Kaiser Wilhelm institutes gave rise to the Max Planck institutes.
During World War I, H. E. Fischer played an important role in the organization of the production of the German chemical industry. Two of his three sons were killed in World War I.
H. E. Fischer died on July 15, 1919 in Berlin as a result of colon cancer. He left his property to the Berlin Academy of Science, in order to support the following generations of scientists. His last resting place is at the cemetery Wannsee in Berlin-Zehlendorf.