The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1973

Ernst Otto Fischer

The field of organometallic chemistry--the study of compounds of metal and carbon--is tremendously important not only for the understanding of such basic structures as the B vitamins, but also of the chemical industry as a whole. The growth of plastics as well as the refining of petroleum hydrocarbons all involve at some stage the metal-to-carbon bond which is at the heart of organometallic chemistry, and Ernst Otto Fischer has played a crucial role in furthering this science. A co-recipient of the 1973 Nobel Prize for chemistry for his X-ray analysis of the structure of a particular iron-to- carbon bond in so-called "sandwich compounds," Fischer, working with members of his research laboratory in Munich, was also on the cutting edge of transition-metal research, synthesizing totally new classes of compounds. Fischer was born on November 10, 1918, in the Munich suburb of Solln. The third child of Valentine Danzer Fischer and Karl Tobias Fischer, a physics professor at Munich's Technische Hochschule, Fischer attended the Theresien Gymnasium (high school), graduating in 1937. He subsequently did his compulsory service in the German army, the compulsory two-year period being extended due to the outbreak of World War II in 1939. In between serving in Poland, France, and Russia, Fischer managed, in the winter of 1941-42, to begin his studies in chemistry at the Technische Hochschule in Munich. Captured by the Americans, he was held in a prisoner of war camp until repatriation in the fall of 1945. He resumed his chemistry studies in Munich in 1946, working under Walter Hieber, well known for his early work on combining metals with molecules of carbon and oxygen, or metal-carbonyl chemistry. Fischer earned his Ph.D. degree in 1952 for research on carbon-to-nickel bonds; his course was well set by this time for a career in the new field of organometallic chemistry.

After earning his doctorate, Fischer remained at the Technische Hochschule, working as an assistant researcher. He and his first research students were drawn to a puzzling compound reported by the chemists T. Kealy and P. Pauson. In an attempt to link two cyclopentadiene --five-carbon--rings together, these scientists discovered an unknown compound which they believed involved an iron atom linked between two consecutive longitudinal rings of carbon. The intervening iron atom seemed to join with a carbon atom on each of the rings. That such metal-to-carbon bonds exist was not the surprising thing. In fact, such unstable bonds are necessary for catalytic processing of such compounds. What was interesting about this compound (initially called dicyclopentadienyl iron) was that it was not unstable at all. It was in fact highly stable both thermally and chemically. Such stability made no sense to Fischer given the nature of the proposed structure of the compound, and he theorized that it was in fact an entirely new sort of molecular complex. An English chemist, Geoffrey Wilkinson, soon proposed an alternate structure to the compound (now renamed ferrocene). He described ferrocene as made up of an atom of iron sandwiched between two parallel rings, one on top of the other rather than in a line on the same plane. Thus the iron formed bonds not just with a single atom on each ring, but with all of the atoms and also with the electrons within the rings, accounting for its stability. From this description came the term "sandwich compounds." Meanwhile, Fischer and his research team, including W. Pfab, carried out meticulous X-ray crystallography on ferrocene, elucidating the compound's structure, and proving Wilkinson's theory correct. The examination and discovery of the structure of ferrocene was a watershed event in the field of organometallic chemistry, providing work for a new generation of inorganic chemists.

From ferrocene, Fischer and his team went on to determine the structure of, as well as synthesize, other transition metals--those substances at a stage in between metal and organic--particularly dibenzenechromium, an aromatic hydrocarbon. Such substances are termed aromatic not because of smell, but because of structure: they are hydrocarbons in closed rings which are capable of uniting with other atom groups. Fischer showed dibenzenechromium to be another sandwich compound with two rings of benzene joined by an atom of chromium in between. This bit of research earned him world-wide renown in scientific circles, as the neutral chromium molecule and neutral benzene molecules had been thought to be uncombinable. Fischer's rise in academia paralleled the swift advance of his research: by 1954 he was an assistant professor at the Technische Hochschule; by 1957, a full professor at the University of Munich; and in 1964 he returned to the Technische Hochschule--by now called the Technische Universit?t or Technical University--as director of the Institute for Inorganic Chemistry, replacing the retiring director and his former mentor, Professor Hieber. Fischer's laboratory, equipped with all the latest equipment for spectrographic and structural analysis, soon became a center for worldwide organometallic research, and Fischer, who excelled both as a lecturer and as researcher, soon became the leading spokesperson for the new study. He also began lecturing around the world, and spent two visiting professorships in the United States in 1971 and 1973.

In 1973 Fischer, shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry with the English chemist Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson. The two scientists were cited for their "pioneering work, performed independently, on the chemistry of the organometallic, so- called sandwich compounds." Around this time, Fischer and his team at Munich's Technical University were successfully synthesizing both the first carbene complexes and carbyne complexes--carbon atoms triply joined to metal atoms--which heralded an entirely new class of metal complexes of a transitional sort and spurred research in the field.

In addition to the Nobel, Fischer--a life-long bachelor--has also won the G?ttingen Academy Prize in 1957 and the Alfred Stock Memorial Prize of the Society of German Chemists in 1959, as well as honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and full membership in the German Academy of Scientists. Among the many commercial and industrial spin-offs of his work is the creation of catalysts employed in the drug industry and also in oil refining, leading to the manufacture of fuels with low lead con ten t.

I was born in Solln, near Munich, on 10 November 1918 as the third child of the Professor of Physics at the Technical College of Munich, Dr. Karl T. Fischer (died 1953), and his wife, Valentine, n?e Danzer (died 1935). After completing four years at elementary school I went on to grammar school in 1929, from which I graduated in 1937 with my Abitur. Following a subsequent period of "work service" and shortly before the end of my two years' compulsory military service, the Second World War broke out. I served in Poland, France and Russia. In the winter of 1941/2 I began to study Chemistry at the Technical College in Munich during a period of study leave. I was released by the Americans in the autumn of 1945, and resumed my study of Chemistry in Munich after the reopening of the Technical College in 1946. I graduated in 1949. I took up a position as scientific assistant to Professor Walter Hieber in the Inorganic Chemistry Department, and under his guidance I dedicated myself to working on my doctoral thesis, "The Mechanisms of Carbon Monoxide Reactions of Nickel II Salts in the Presence of Dithionites and Sulfoxylates". After receiving my doctorate in 1952, I was invited by Professor Hieber to continue my activities at the college and consequently chose to specialise in the study of transition metal and organo-metallic chemistry. I wrote my university teaching thesis on "The Metal Complexes of Cyclopentadienes and Indenes". I was appointed a lecturer at the Technical College in 1955 and in 1956 I completed a scientific sojourn of many months in the United States. In 1957 I was appointed Professor at the University of Munich. After turning down an offer of the Chair of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Jena I was appointed Senior Professor at the University of Munich in 1959 . In 1957 I was awarded the Chemistry Prize by the G?ttingen Academy of Sciences. The Society of German Chemists awarded me the Alfred Stock Memorial Prize in 1959. In 1960 I refused an appointment as Senior Professor in the Department of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Marburg. In 1964 I took the Chair of Inorganic Chemistry at the Technical College of Munich, which had been vacated by Professor Hieber. In the same year I was elected a member of the Mathematics/Natural Science section of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences; in 1969 I was appointed a member of the German Academy of Scientists Leopoldina. In 1972 I was given an honorary doctorate by the Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy of the University of Munich.

Lectures on my fields, particularly those on metallic complexes of cyclopentadienes and indenes, metal-p-complexes of six-ringed aromatics, mono-, di- and oligo-olefins and most recently metalcarbonyl carbene and carbyne complexes, led me on lecture tours of the United States, Australia, Venezuela, Brazil, Israel and Lebanon, as well as numerous European countries, including the former Soviet Union. In 1969 I was Firestone Lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison,Wisconsin, USA; in 1971 Visiting Professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville, USA, as well as the first Inorganic Chemistry Pacific West Coast Lecturer. In the spring of 1973 I held lectures as the Arthur D. Little Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA; and that was followed by a period when I was Visiting Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, USA.

Banquet Speech

Ernst Otto Fischer's speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1973 (in German)

Eure Majest?t, K?nigliche Hoheiten, Meine Damen und Herren,

Eine festliche, frohgestimmte, grosse Tafelrunde schenkt uns Preistr?gern aus so verschiedener Herren L?nder an diesem Ehrentag die Freude ihrer Anwesenheit. Daf?r sei der Nobel-Stiftung und Ihnen allen herzlich gedankt.

Lassen wir in dieser Stunde in Gedanken auch einen ruhelosen Mann des sp?ten letzten Jahrhunderts seiner Kutsche entsteigen und, so wenig er der Welt der Bankette zugeneigt war, unter uns still Platz nehmen. Ihm und den Beh?tern seines Verm?chtnisses ist all das zu verdanken, was wir in diesen Tagen an Freude und herzlicher, menschlicher Begegnung erfahren d?rfen.

Die Preistr?ger der Chemie f?hlen sich Alfred Nobel und seinem Wirken besonders eng verbunden.

Die Natur und das Unerforschliche, das hinter ihr verborgen bleibt und Verehrung fordert, hat dem Chemiker eine Orgel mit nun schon ?ber 100 verschiedenen T?nen zur Verf?gung gestellt, auf der er komponieren und musizieren darf. Er kann aber auch dem immer noch unendlich sch?neren Spiel ihrer selbst lauschend und forschend nachgehen. Beides wohl Aufgaben, die ein Leben erf?llen k?nnen, wenn es nachdenklich sein soll.

M?gen wir Chemiker auch in Zukunft harmonische Musik machen, zur Freude und zum Nutzen der Menschen im Sinne Alfred Nobels und nicht zu ihrem Schaden.

Alfred Nobel hat einmal im Gespr?ch zu einem Freund gesagt, er wolle den Tr?umern unter den Wissenschaftlern helfen.

Da? den Tr?umern im Reiche der Chemie auch in Zukunft ein Platz erhalten bleibe, ist der Wunsch der Preistr?ger in Chemie in diesem Jahr.

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