December 4, 2023
Emil Fischer

Emil Fischer: The researcher of sugar and purines

The full name of Emil Fischer is Hermann Emil Louis Fischer, 1st Baron von Fischer, (9 December 1852 in Gdańsk – 15 September 1946 in Cambridge) was a German chemist and 1902 Nobel laureate. He discovered the structure of vitamin B12 and originally named it cobinamide.

About Emil Fischer

Emil Fischer was born in Gdańsk (then part of Germany, now Poland), to a Protestant family of [Prussian] origin. His father Heinrich Fischer was a businessman. In 1867 Fischer attended the Universität Straßburg where he studied physics, chemistry and biology under August Kekulé. After a few months of military training, Fischer devoted himself entirely to science. In 1870 he graduated from the University with a doctorate in medicine and physiology. Following his studies at the University, Fischer worked on several different aspects of organic chemistry including the synthesis of purine and analyzing the products yielded by dry distillation of coal and lignite. 

Personal Life

In 1872 he married Henriette von Koppenfels. Their son Hermann Frhr Baron von Fischer (1878-1940) was also a chemist, and a professor at the University of Berlin.

Upon obtaining his doctorate, Fischer was appointed to a position at the Institute of Physical Chemistry at University of Strasbourg. However, in 1874 he received an offer to join the chemical laboratory at Freiburg as head chemist, which he accepted. Fischer’s work focused mainly on oxidising sugars and celluloses with nitric acid and describing several metabolic products from aerobically growing organisms. In 1879 he discovered camphor, the first diterpene isolated from plants.

His Career

In 1881, at the University of Marburg, Fischer was appointed associate professor of chemistry and director of the chemical laboratory. In 1886, he succeeded Justus von Liebig as chair of chemistry and director of the scientific laboratories at the University of Munich. However, Fischer’s relationship with his colleagues was poor due to his personality. In 1892 he returned to Freiburg as a professor, where he remained until 1940. Over that time period he supervised more than 50 doctoral students, who became known as “Fischer’s children”. He published more than 300 scientific papers, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1902 for his work on vitamin B12, a substance essential to humans.

His research work

Emil Fischer

Fischer was an early pioneer of physical chemistry, physical organic chemistry, and stereochemistry. His work on sugars and purines is considered to mark the beginning of the field of carbohydrate chemistry. In his research on sugars, he isolated a number of new compounds including aldehydes, ketones, alcohols, and carboxylic acids. He also developed a new method for synthesizing acetone via fermentation. His work on carbohydrates is considered to be important but generally overlooked in the English-speaking world because it was not translated into English until several years after his death. Fischer’s work on purines followed similar lines to his work on sugars and resulted in the discovery of nucleic acids.

Research about vitamin B12

In 1894 Fischer began to study vitamin B12. Because the vitamin was not soluble, it could not be studied using the techniques of organic chemistry. Fischer developed a method for extracting it from meat broths and characterized its chemical properties. He discovered that it was composed of nucleotides, which he named ‘corrin’ because of their resemblance to formic acid (formyl-OH). He also proved that B12 had its own metabolism and was not simply a form of a nucleotide such as adenosine monophosphate (AMP).

B12 is a part of the coenzyme for the conversion of riboflavin to flavin adenine dinucleotide (FAD) and flavin mononucleotide (FMN). He named the compound ‘cobalamine’. Fischer’s work provided an explanation for how B12 was produced by bacteria. Subsequently, he proved that cobamamide or vitamin B12 was found in every cell, animal, and plant. An English translation of his work on vitamin B12 was published in 1914 in “The Journal of Experimental Medicine”.

Research about uric acid

Emil Fischer also isolated uric acid in 1889 whilst working at Marburg. He was led to its discovery by his belief (now called the ‘Fischer hypothesis’ but not, as sometimes suggested, based on his own work) that gout could be a metabolic disease of purine metabolism. In 1907, he crystallized uric acid.

His Death

In 1940, Fischer retired from his position at Freiburg. He then moved to Cambridge in England where he died on 15 September 1946 at the age of 93.


Honour awarded to Fischer

In 1902 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for ” his work on sugar and purine synthesis”, which made him very famous around the world. He was awarded by the House of Hesse-Kassel, which gave him the title “von Fischer ”, and he became Baron von Fischer of Freiburg im Breisgau.

Fischer’s most important contribution in his early career was the discovery of several compounds containing purine derivatives including those that he isolated from plant materials. He also studied their biological effects using artificial synthesis. Fischer showed that many such compounds contained benzene rings like antibodies, but disagreed with this theory put forward by a fellow student Heuck in 1902.

He later discovered the structure of vitamin B12 in 1898 while studying its metabolism.

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