Sunday, September 15, 2013

Gilbert Lewis

Gilbert Newton Lewis was born on October 23, 1875 in Weymouth, Massachusetts. His father, Francis Lewis, was a lawyer. When he was nine his parents moved to Lincoln, Nebraska. Lewis had no formal schooling until he was admitted to a preparatory school for the University of Nebraska at the age of 13. He attended the University of Nebraska for two years, then in 1893 he went to Harvard College where he graduated in 1896. After a year of teaching at Philips Academy Andover outside of Boston he returned to Harvard where he earned his MA in 1898 and his PhD in 1899 with a dissertation on electrochemical potentials. He remained at Harvard for on more year as an instructor then went on a traveling fellowship where he visited Wilhelm Ostwald in Leipzig and Walther Nernst in Gottingen. When he returned he spent three more years at Harvard before moving the the Philippines where he was superintendent of weights and measures and chemist at the Bureau of Science.

He returned to the United States in 1905 to a faculty position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was appointed assistant professor in 1907, associate professor in 1908, and full professor in 1911. In 1912 he left M.I.T. for the University of California at Berkeley where he was dean of chemistry and a professor of physical chemistry. His time in California was interrupted by First World War when Lewis served as a major in the gas service and chemical warfare service.

His first research interest was thermodynamics. He introduced the idea of activity, or the effective concentration of a chemical species in solution. Lewis is best remembered for his valence theory and the eponymous dot structures. Lewis pictured atoms as cubes with the electrons at the corners. We now know that atoms are spherical and their electrons are spread out in orbitals. Lewis also wrote papers on relativity and defined acids and bases as electron acceptors and electron donators respectively. Lewis was the first to produce deuterium oxide (heavy water) using Ernest Lawrence's cyclotron in 1933.

Honors won by Lewis include election in to the National Academy of Science in 1913. Because of his disagreements with Walther Nernst he was never awarded the Nobel Prize although he was nominated 30 times. He was awarded numerous honorary doctorates and membership in Royal Society, the Chemical Society of London and the Indian, Swedish, and Danish Academies of Science.

On March 23, 1946 Lewis died in a laboratory accident involving hydrogen cyanide which some believed was suicide.


Carey, Charles W.; "Lewis, Gilbert N." in American Scientists; Infobase Publishing; 2006

Hildebrand, Joel H.; "Gilbert Newton Lewis; 1875-1946"; National Academy Press; 1958

Gilbert N. Lewis Wikipedia Entry

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Marthe Vogt

Marthe Louise Vogt was born on September 8, 1903 in Berlin, Germany. Her parents, Cecile and Oskar, Vogt were leading neuroanatomists and an interest in neural research started early with Vogt. She earned a medical doctorate and a PhD in chemistry from the University of Berlin. Vogt worked as an assistant to Otto Trendelenburg at the Berlin University pharmacology department starting in 1930. A year later she was appointed as head of the chemistry department of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. In 1933, with the election on Hitler, Vogt decided to emigrate to the United Kingdom. Although she was not Jewish, with the rise of Hitler she felt she must leave Germany. In 1935 she got a Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship at the National Institute for Medical Research in the laboratory of Sir Henry Dale.

While working there she published with Dale and Wilhelm Feldberg a seminal paper in neuroscience describing how acetylcholine serves as neurotransmitter in the voluntary nervous system. Nerve impulses are sent electrically down nerves by changing the permeability of the cell membrane to sodium ions allowing them to rush in. Once the impulse reaches the end it releases acetylcholine into nervous/muscle junction. The actylcholine serves as a chemical messenger quickly diffusing across the interface and causing the muscle to contract. The next year she moved to Girton College, Cambridge, where she remained for four years. When World War II broke out she was scheduled to imprisoned as an enemy national but her colleagues came to her rescue, Dale phoning the Home Office demanding an interview with the Home Secretary. During the war she worked with John Gaddum at the College of the Pharmacological Society in London and in 1948 published another paper with Feldberg demonstrating the presence of acetylcholine using nerves in the brain. Vogt followed Gaddum to the University of Edinburgh, where she was first hired as a lecturer and then as a reader.

In 1952 she was elected to the Royal Society of London, a honor that had only been given to 8 women before her. Vogt's research now centered on amines and their use as a neurotransmitter. Later in her career her work centered on serotonin and its effects in the brain. This research lead to breakthroughs in pharmaceuticals that aids patients with depression.

Honors won by Vogt include a Roylal Medal from the Royal Society in 1981, honorary doctorates from the University of Edinburgh and Cambridge University and honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She retired due to ill health at the age of 87 and moved to La Jolla, California to live with her sister.

She died on the day after 100th birthday, September 9, 2003.


Anon.; "Marthe Vogt"; The Telegraph; October 3, 2003

Bell, Chris; "Marthe Louise Vogt (1903-2003)"; pA2 Online; Vol.2 Issue 1; retrieved from:

Marthe Vogt Wikipedia Entry

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Karl August Folkers

Karl August Folkers was born in Decatur, Illinois on September 1, 1906. His father August William Folkers was born in Germany and had emigrated to the United States with his parents and married Laura Susan Black in 1904. As Folkers grew up he became interested in chemistry and obtained chemistry sets to experiment with. He attended the local public schools and he attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne where he earned a BA in chemistry studying under Carl Marvel in 1928. Folkers earned a PhD under Homer Atkins at the University of Wisconsin with a dissertation on using catalysts to reduce esters into alcohols. Folkers did post-doctorate work under Treat Johnson at Yale University studying biochemistry. In 1934 Folkers joined the pharmaceutical company Merck. In 1939 Folkers became the assistant director of research at Merck.

Folkers is best remembered for his determination of the structure of vitamin B-12, which is also called cobalamin. Vitamin B-12 is unique among the water soluble B vitamins in that it contains an atom of cobalt. Vitamin B-12 is used in DNA synthesis and regulation and also fatty acid synthesis. It is synthesized by bacteria and archea and must be ingested by higher organisms. In humans lack of vitamin B-12 causes pernicious anemia where red blood cells do not develop properly and lyse easily. With Fern Rathe and Edward Kaczka, Folkers isolated the antibiotic cathomycin in 1955.

Honors won by Folkers include the Perkin Medal in 1960 and the Priestly Medal in 1985. Folkers was elected to the National Academy of Science in 1948.

Folkers died on December 7, 1997.


Olson, Robert E.; "Karl August Folkers (1906-1997)"; Journal of Nutrition (2001)131:2227-2230

Shive, William; "Karl Augus Folkers September 1, 1906-December 7, 1997"; Biographical Memiors: National Academy Press

Karl August Folkers Wikipedia Entry