Today we’re celebrating chemist Jacobus Henricus van’t Hoff, who was born 161 years ago today, with a 1999 story by our editor-in-chief, A. Maureen Rouhi:
When you’re young and just embarking on a career, it’s not always easy to be taken seriously. So it was in 1874 when Dutch chemist Jacobus Henricus van’t Hoff, then only 22 and not even having received the Ph.D. degree yet, proposed that carbon had a tetrahedral coordination geometry. Three years later, Hermann Kolbe, then 59 and a more established chemist, attacked the idea as “phantasmagorical puffery,” “fantastic foolishness,” “shallow speculations,” and “an overgrowth of the weed of seemingly learned and ingenious but in reality trivial and stupefying natural philosophy.”
Kolbe’s vociferous dismissal notwithstanding, the tetrahedral geometry of tetravalent carbon has become one of the tenets that students learn early in a basic organic chemistry course.
Tetrahdral Carbon Redux: Symposium commemorates 125-year-old idea that evolved into stereochemistry