Alfred Werner

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Mulhouse, Haut-Rhin
Birth Sign
Mulhouse, Haut-Rhin

Alfred Werner was a Swiss chemist who started a field of science called “coordination chemistry.” He got the 1913 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on how coordination compounds are put together. Before him, it was hard to figure out how to study things like valence bonding and geometry in metal amine complexes. He changed the way inorganic chemistry and stereochemistry are done. His work has been used in many fields, like organic chemistry, analytical chemistry, biochemistry, geochemistry, and mineralogy. This shows that stereochemistry is not just a thing that happens in organic chemistry, but that it is a general phenomenon. He worked hard as a researcher and got the reputation of being a hard taskmaster. Outside of the lab, he was a friendly guy who liked to play pool, chess, and the Swiss card game Jass with his friends. He traveled a lot for his talks and scientific conferences, and he loved spending his vacations in the mountains. He was a good speaker, and people liked how he could explain things in a way that made sense. During his short life, he wrote a lot of papers about his research. Some people liked them, and others didn’t. He was given a lot of awards and memberships in well-known groups.

Childhood and Adolescence

Alfred Werner was born in Mulhouse, Alsace, on December 12, 1866. He was Jean-Adam Werner’s fourth and youngest child, born to his second wife, Salomé Jeanette Tesché. His father was a former locksmith and foundry worker, while his mother came from a wealthy household.

Alsace had been conquered by Germany at the time of his birth, but his family continued to speak French. His political and cultural affinity with France instilled in him a spirit of defiance and resistance.

From 1872 until 1878, he attended the “ÉcoleLibre des Frères” in Mulhouse. He then went to the “École Professionelle” to study chemistry till 1885. From here, his interest in chemistry grew, prompting him to do his first chemical research at the age of 18.

He served in the military for one year in Karlsruhe, attending lectures at the “Technische Hochschule” (Technical High School).
He enrolled in the “Eidgenössisches Polytechnikum” [Swiss Federal Institute of Technology] in Zurich in 1886 and graduated in 1889 with a Diploma in Technical Chemistry.

Because the Polytechnikum was not authorized to confer doctorates until 1909, he got his doctorate at the University of Zurich in 1890. His thesis focused on the spatial configurations of atoms in nitrogen-containing compounds.

Alfred Werner’s Career

Werner accepted a job as an assistant in Professor Georg Lunge’s laboratory at the Zurich Technical High School after receiving his diploma. ‘Überräumliche Anordnungen der Atome in stickstoffhaltigen Molekülen’ (1890), which was also his PhD dissertation, was the result of his collaboration with Professor Arthur Hantzsch.

He applied Joseph Achille Le Bel and Jacobus Henricusvan’t Hoff’s concept of the tetrahedral carbon compound to the nitrogen compound in his dissertation, which explained several occurrences of geometrically isomeric trivalent nitrogen derivatives. Victor Meyer, Karl von Auwers, Eugen Bamberger, and others objected, but it is now considered one of the foundations of stereochemistry.

His second paper, ‘Beiträgezur Theorie der Affinität und Valenz’ (1891), was an Habilitationsschrift [an original piece necessary to qualify for a teaching place at a university] that concentrated on the theory of affinity and valence.

He replaced August Kekulé’s rigidly directed valences with a more flexible approach in this paper, in which affinity was understood as a variously divisible, attracting force coming from the center of an atom and operating equally in all directions.

In 1892, he returned to the Technical High School as a Privatdocent [unsalaried lecturer] after working on thermo-chemical investigations with Marcellin Berthelot at the “Collège de France” in Paris. He built the foundation for his study on atom spatial interactions while working on his thesis.

‘Beitragzur Konstitutionanorganischer Verbindungen,’ his third and possibly most important technical article, was published in 1893, and it contained the core postulates of his coordination theory. It was inspired by a “dream” in which he discovered the solution to the problem of “molecular compounds.” Despite his little knowledge of inorganic chemistry, the article made him an overnight success.

In 1893, he resigned from his position and joined the University of Zurich as an “Associate Professor.”
At the age of 29, he became a “Professor of Chemistry” two years later, in 1895. In the same year, he became a Swiss citizen and was offered positions in Vienna, Basle, and Wurzburg. He elected to stay in Zurich and continue his organic and, later, inorganic chemistry lectures.

His coordination theory was essential in putting thousands of inorganic compounds on a consistent foundation and explaining their interrelationships in a straightforward manner. Many people questioned the concept because it was mostly theoretical. He collaborated with his students to research and prepare new chemical substances.

As a result of this, he discovered optically active isomers. He classified metal-ammines into two groups: those with coordination number six (given an octahedral configuration) and those with coordination number four (given a tetrahedral configuration) (given a square planar or tetrahedral configuration).

He identified not only coordination compounds but also numerous unknown compounds that assisted his idea, after over 25 years of investigation. In 1913, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the structure of coordination compounds.

He received an honorary doctorate in technological sciences from ETH Zurich the following year “in recognition of his remarkable contribution in the subject of general chemistry, which also appears to promote technology.”

His Major Projects

Werner’s most notable contributions are in the realm of coordination chemistry. He was the first to suggest that coordination molecules with complicated ions may have proper structures. Chemists were able to rationalize the number of isomers of coordination compounds as a result of this finding, which led to new fields of organic chemistry research.

He also has a position in the periodic table’s history. He separated the lanthanide elements [atomic numbers 58 -71] from other elements in 1905 and restructured the chart, which is still in use today.

Achievements and Awards

He is known as the “Father of Coordination Chemistry,” and his contributions to stereochemistry are immeasurable. In 1913, he was the first inorganic chemist to earn the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his concept of the octahedral shape of transition metal complexes.

‘Neuere Anschauungen auf dem Gebiete der anorganischen Chemie’ [New Ideas in Inorganic Chemistry] and ‘Lehrbuch der Stereochemie’ [Textbook of Stereochemistry] were his two books released in 1904.
He was a member of the “British Chemical Society” (Foreign Member), the “German Academy of Science,” and the “German Bunsen Society for Applied Physical Chemistry,” among others.

Personal History and Legacy

He was reared as a Roman Catholic when his mother switched from Protestantism to Catholicism. Werner’s religious inclination remained minor in later life, notwithstanding his Catholic background.
After marrying Emma Gieskerand in 1894, he became a naturalized Swiss citizen. They had a boy named Alfred and a daughter named Charlotte.

His health began to deteriorate at a young age, and by 1913, he had developed cerebral arteriosclerosis, which was exacerbated by his excessive drinking and long working hours. In 1915, he was obliged to stop giving general lectures, and in 1919, he resigned from his professorship.

Werner died on November 15, 1919, at the relatively young age of 52. He died a few weeks before his 53rd birthday in Burghölzli, a psychiatric institution in Zurich, Switzerland.

Estimated Net worth

Alfred is one of the wealthiest chemists and is on the list of the most well-known chemists. Wikipedia, Forbes, and Business Insider all say that Alfred Werner has a net worth of about $1.5 million.


The Nobel Prize for inorganic chemistry was given to Alfred Werner for the first time. It was also the first time a Swiss national received the Prize in Chemistry.