Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Schorlemmer, Carl

SCHORLEMMER, CARL (1834–1892), chemist, was born on 30 Sept. 1834 at Darmstadt. He was the eldest son of Johannes Schorlemmer, a master-carpenter, and his wife, whose maiden name was Roth. He went first to the elementary school, and then to the ‘Realschule,’ and from sixteen to nineteen, owing to the influence of his mother, but much against his father's inclination, to the ‘Höhere Gewerbeschule,’ in Darmstadt, where he learnt elementary science. His father then forced him to abandon his idea of following a profession; and at Easter 1854, probably at the suggestion of his friend, William Dittmar (1833–1892) (see obituary in Nature, xlv. 493, by A. C[rum] B[rown]), he became the pupil of an apothecary named Lindenborn at Gross-Umstadt. After two and a half years, during which he employed his leisure in acquiring an extensive practical knowledge of botany, he obtained his diploma as pharmaceutical assistant, and went in that capacity to an apothecary named Odenwald at Heidelberg. Here he attended the lectures of the great chemist Robert Wilhelm Bunsen, which led him to adopt chemistry as a profession. He gave up his business in May 1859 and entered the university of Giessen, where he studied in the laboratory of Heinrich Will (1812–1890) and under Hermann Kopp (1817–1892), from whom he derived his interest in the history of chemistry. In the autumn of 1859 he replaced Dittmar as the private assistant of Professor (now Sir) Henry Enfield Roscoe at the Owens College, Manchester, and remained connected with the college till his death. In March 1861 he was appointed (again to replace Dittmar) as assistant in the college laboratory, in 1873 he was made lecturer, and in 1874 professor of organic chemistry, the chair being the first created for this subject in England. He was naturalised 20 May 1879.

After helping Roscoe in his research on the distillation of dilute acids, he began in 1861 his first original investigation, on a sample of the light oils from cannel coal-tar sent to the college by Mr. John Barrow of Gorton (Transactions of the Chemical Society, 1862, p. 419). This determined the greater part of his life work. Some erroneous observations of the chemist, Professor Edward Frankland, had led to the general belief that certain important hydrocarbons, now known as the normal paraffins, were capable of existing in two isomeric forms, as ‘alcohol radicles,’ and as ‘hydrides of the alcohol radicles.’ By a long and patient examination of normal paraffins occurring in coal-tar, in natural petroleums, and produced synthetically, Schorlemmer showed that these substances form a single and not a double series. August Kekulé (1829–1896) and A. S. Couper had, in 1858, started the theory that in organic compounds each carbon atom is ‘tetravalent,’ but Schorlemmer's observations were essential to the development of the theory, according to which the four ‘valencies’ are equivalent. This hypothesis has proved a most powerful engine of research, and is now regarded as the fundamental conception of modern organic chemistry. Schorlemmer was also author of an important memoir ‘On the Classification and Structure of the Paraffin Hydrocarbons’ (Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1868, xvi. 367). In the course of his work on the paraffins, Schorlemmer prepared a considerable number of new substances, among them normal pentane, normal heptane, and diisopropyl. He also investigated the action of chlorine on the paraffins, and described a valuable general method for the conversion of secondary alcohols into the corresponding primary compounds. Besides interesting speculations on the vexed question of the constitution of bleaching powder, he published, with his friend, Richard S. Dale, a valuable series of observations on aurin and on suberone.

But Schorlemmer's literary work gradually took him from the laboratory, and absorbed all his time from 1883 onwards. In 1867 he translated Roscoe's ‘Elementary Lessons on Chemistry’ into German, and in 1870 Roscoe's ‘Spectrum Analysis.’ In 1871 he published independently his ‘Lehrbuch der Kohlenstoffverbindungen,’ of which a translation appeared as a ‘Manual of Organic Chemistry.’ In 1874 he published a short work on the ‘Rise and Development of Organic Chemistry,’ in which the chief events of the history are attractively sketched; of this a French translation was published in 1885; and a second edition appeared in Germany in 1889, of which the English form was revised and published by Schorlemmer's pupil, Professor Arthur Smithells, in 1894. In 1877 appeared the first volume of a great ‘Systematic Treatise on Chemistry,’ written jointly by Roscoe and Schorlemmer. This work, of which the successive volumes were published in English and German, is still incomplete, but forms the most extensive, and at the same time readable, textbook on the subject. Schorlemmer was elected F.R.S. on 16 Nov. 1871, was made honorary LL.D. of Glasgow in 1888.

After a lingering illness, Schorlemmer died, unmarried, on 27 June 1892 at his house in Manchester.

At the time of his death Schorlemmer had carried the German manuscript of a new history of chemistry down to the end of the seventeenth century. This manuscript, left in the hands of his executor, Dr. Louis Siebold, is still unpublished. It contains a confirmation of the suggestion of H. Kopp, that the famous works attributed to ‘Basil Valentine,’ a supposed alchemist of the fifteenth century, were really written in the seventeenth by Johann Thölde, who actually published his ‘Halographia’ first in 1612 under his own name, and then in 1644 under that of Basil Valentine. Schorlemmer published in all forty-six papers independently, two with Harry Grimshaw, eleven with R. S. Dale, and one with Thomas Edward Thorpe, F.R.S. (cf. Transactions of the Chemical Society, 1893, p. 761).

Schorlemmer was a man of keen insight, and possessed remarkable erudition, patience, and enthusiasm for science. These qualities made him, in spite of imperfect English (and a dislike of administrative detail), an exceptionally good teacher, and his influence, united to that of Roscoe, of whom he was a close friend, raised the Owens College school of chemistry to the first rank. Though genial and humorous, Schorlemmer was retiring by nature. Through Friedrich Engels he became acquainted with the socialist, Karl Marx, whose views he partially shared (cf. Vorwärts Tageblatt, 3 July 1892, by F. Engels).

A photograph of Schorlemmer hangs in the common room at the Owens College. The memorial ‘Schorlemmer laboratory’ at the Owens College, for research in organic chemistry, was founded by public subscription and was opened in May 1895.

[Obituary notices in the Manchester Guardian, 28 June 1892; the Berichte d. deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft, xxv. 1106, by A. Spiegel (the fullest notice); the Transactions of the Chemical Society, 1893, p. 756; the Proceedings of the Royal Society, vol. lii. p. vii, by Sir H. E. Roscoe; the Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, [4] vii. 191, by Professor Harold B. Dixon; a manuscript paper read before the Owens College Chemical Society by Dr. B. Lean; introduction by Professor Smithells to the 2nd edition of the Rise of Organic Chemistry; Ladenburg's Entwickelungsgesch. d. Chemie, 2nd edit. p. 283; Kopp's Alchemie, i. 29 et seq.; Hoefer's Hist. de la Chimie, i. 478 et seq.; information from Dr. Larmuth and from Dr. Louis Siebold; and personal knowledge.]

P. J. H.