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Famous scholars from Kiel:

Theodor Curtius

The Rhinelander by birth directed the Institute of Chemistry from 1889 to 1897. He would have been 150 on 27th May.

Theodor Curtius was born in Duisburg in 1857. He initially studied music and natural sciences at Leipzig and Heidelberg. Later on, under the influence of his mentors Robert Wilhelm Bunsen in Heidelberg and Hermann Kolbe in Leipzig, he turned more and more to chemistry. Following completion of his PhD in Leipzig, he moved to Adolf von Baeyer's laboratory at the University of Munich. This is where he made the discovery of diazoacetic ester, the first representative in a new class of organic nitrogen compounds, the diazo fatty acids. "This interesting observation was of great relevance to science and determined the young researcher's future direction for the rest of his life", writes Carl Duisberg on the occasion of the Theodor Curtius commemorative service at the Heidelberg Chemistry Society in May 1930. "There are probably only very few scientists in the field of chemistry of whom one can say, as for Curtius, that all their research originated from their first piece of work and was then systematically and logically developed", sums up Duisberg (1861-1935), the former director of the Bayer dyes factory in Leverkusen.

Curtius completed his post-doctoral research on diazo fatty acids in 1886 at the University of Erlangen. Shortly afterwards (1887/1888), he attracted further attention with another discovery: the production of hydrazine from diazoacetic ester, for which he filed patents in both Germany and the USA. "It was this discovery that made the name Curtius generally known and that provided the main impetus for his appointment to professor at Kiel, where there were great hopes for the researcher of only 32 years in age, following such outstanding achievements", reports Otto Diels in his essay on the history of chemistry at Kiel. On 23rd December 1889, Curtius was appointed as Professor of Chemistry and the Director of the Institute of Chemistry at Kiel. As early as the following year, he continued his success with the production of hydrazoic acid from hydrazine.

This new acid was a substance with very special properties. "Its composition, its properties similar to hydrochloric acid and its explosiveness without compare were characteristics sufficient to guarantee it and the man who discovered it the interest of the entire scientific community", states Diels. This discovery also had practical applications in explosives technology: The lead salt of hydrazoic acid was introduced in the First World War as an explosive initiator. The publication on the metabolic pathway for carbonic acid azides named after him, the so-called Curtius rearrangement, also took place during his Kiel years.

In 1897, Curtius left Kiel University, after he had already turned down offers of appointments at Würzburg in 1892 and Tübingen in 1895, to succeed the famous chemist August Kekulé at the University of Bonn. As early as April of the following year, he accepted an offer of an appointment at Heidelberg. He remained there for 28 years as the Director of the Institute of Chemistry. He retired from teaching and directing the Institute at the end of the 1925/26 winter term. However, he only enjoyed a brief retirement. Curtius died in Heidelberg on 8th February 1928.

The extent of his scientific success resulted in many honours: He had the title of Prussian Privy Councillor bestowed on him in 1895 and his appointment to the chair in Heidelberg also meant he received the title and rank of a Baden Privy Councillor, 2nd Class. The University of Erlangen, where his first great discoveries were made, awarded him with the title of Honorary Doctor of Medicine in 1908, and the Technical University of Karlsruhe gave him the honorary title of Doctor of Engineering on his 70th Birthday. The bachelor Curtius was not a scholar who was only interested in science. Duisberg writes: "He was always the same, jolly, sophisticated and warm-hearted companion who was by no means all-consumed by his specialist interests, but remained a passionate afficionado for the arts and a great friend of beautiful Nature throughout his life. He was a competent pianist and a good composer, a splendid singer with a pleasant baritone voice, who made several concert appearances in his younger years (…). His love of Alpine sports, his passion for the beautiful mountain regions (…) is generally known."

Kerstin Nees

Curtius and the mountains

Theodor Curtius was an enthusiastic mountaineer in his younger years, but had to abandon the sport in 1892 due to a serious illness. He got to know the mountain guide Christian Klucker during his time in Munich, with whom he undertook many mountain tours, including first ascents. He usually visited the Swiss mountains to relax during his holidays: He was particularly taken with the mountains of the Upper Engadine. In 1891, he and his brother Friedrich had the Forno hut built by the Forno glacier as a base for the exploration of the then little known Bergell Alps. He later bought a small property in Sils-Maria in the Engadine, where he regularly spent his autumn holidays. In 1894, Curtius founded the Kiel Section of the Alpine Club and was its first chairman until the end of 1896.

For further reading:

  • Carl Duisberg: Theodor Curtius. Zeitschrift für angewandte Chemie,
    1930, 43. Jahrgang, S. 723–725
  • Otto Diels: Die Geschichte der Chemie an der Universität Kiel. In: Festschrift zum 275jährigen Bestehen der Christian-Albrechts-Universität Kiel. Published by Paul Ritterbusch, Hanns Löhr, Otto Scheel and Gottfried Ernst Hoffmann. Leipzig, 1940. S. 332–343

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