Alfred Werner
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Personal History: Alfred Werner, the founder of coordination chemistry, was born on December. 12, 1866 in Mülhausen, Alsace which is located in France. He was a Swiss chemist who studied Inorganic Chemistry. He was a professor at University of Zurich in Switzerland, and in 1893 he proposed the octahedral configuration of transition metal complexes with won him the noble prize in 1913. Alfred won the noble prize in recognition of his work on the linkage of atoms in molecules. From 1885 until 1886 he did his military service in Karlsruhe and, during this, attended the lectures of Engler at the Technical High School in that city. In 1886 he attended lectures at the Federal Technical High School at Zurich and in 1889 obtained there the Diploma in Technical Chemistry. During his studies there he was much influenced by Professor A. Hantzsch. In 1889 he was appointed Assistant in Professor Lunge's laboratory at the Zurich Technical High School and he then began to cooperate with Professor Hantzsch in research. In 1890 he took his degree in the University of Zurich with a thesis on the spatial arrangements of the atoms in molecules containing nitrogen. From 1890 until 1891 he did further work on this subject and visited Paris, where he worked under Professor Berthelot at the Collège de France. In 1892 he returned to Zurich as a lecturer in the Technical High School, and in 1893 he was appointed Associate Professor in the University of Zurich, to succeed Victor Merz and then gave the University lectures on organic chemistry. In 1895 he became, when he was only 29 years old, Professor of Chemistry in the University, giving the lectures on organic chemistry until, in 1902, he took over the lectures on inorganic chemistry as well. In 1895 he was acquired Swiss nationality and though he was offered posts at Vienna, Basle and Wurzburg, he declined these, preferring to remain in Zurich. Although Werner’s later interest in religion was minimal, his family was Roman Catholic. He past away on November 15, 1919, age 53, from arteriosclerosis.

Major Experiments, Contributions, or Discoveries: In 1893 Werner published his third major article on stereo chemistry, setting forth his theory of coordination compounds, which had occurred to him in a dream. Even though he didn't know much of inorganic chemistry, he awoke one night in 1892 around 2 am with the solution to the puzzle of what were then called molecular compounds. He wrote his most important theoretical paper by 5 pm. It brought him almost instant fame and a position as extraordinaire (associate) professor at the University of Zurich, where he spent the rest of his career.
Next, Werner had disposed Kekule's artificial distinction between "valence compounds" and "molecular compounds". Among the latter were the metal-ammines, which contain a metal salt as well as ammonia (a neutral molecule), both of which were capable of independent existence. The basic property of the ammonia was “masked” in that it did not react with acids. Not only that but the nature of the strong bond between the metal salt and the ammonia was not explained. So then Werner proposed a revolutionary approach in the configuration of metal-ammines, double salts, and metal salt hydrates were logical consequences of a new concept, the coordination number. Werner divided metal-ammines into two classes - those with coordination number six, for which he demanded an octahedral configuration, and those with coordination number four, for which he proposed a tetrahedral configuration. He also postulated two types of valence - primary valence (which bonded the anion to the metal atom) and secondary valence (which bonded the ammonia to the metal atom.) Werner showed in his experiment that the validity of his personal views are cited by numerous reactions, transformations, and cases of isomerism. He demonstrated that from metal ammines to ammonia was not a simple loss but simultaneously, a change of function of the anions occurred, which resulted in a different transition from cationic compounds to non electrolytes, and to anionic compounds. He also did show how water or other grounds could replaced ammonia, and showed the transition series existence between ammines, metal hydrates. In addition, his speculations of other subjects such as the salt's state in solution and the polarization effects that occurs in chemical bonding. Werner not only explained known coordination compounds but also predicted the existence of numerous series of unknown compounds, which were discovered by him and his students. He was one of the first to show that stereo chemistry is not limited to organic chemistry but is a general phenomenon. Following his resolution of series after series of coordination compounds beginning in 1911, Werner became the first Swiss chemist to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1913.

Interesting Facts:

  • Alfred Werner's hard work of discovering coordination chemistry won him the Noble Prize for chemistry in 1913 for his research into the structure of coordination compounds.
  • He was the first inorganic chemist to the win the Noble Prize and in fact the only one prior to 1973.
  • Alfred was a very dedicated chemist, he was only 18 when he did his first independent chemical research.
  • He was an author of 2 books, both published in 1904, Neure Anschauugen auf dem Gebiete der anorganischen Chemie (New Ideas in Inorganic Chemistry) and Lehrbuch der stereochemie(Textbook of Stereo chemistry). As a lecturer, he was a convincing, socialable and enthusiastic speaker who was very good at explaining difficult problems.
  • Some of his favourite pass times include billiard, chess and the Swiss card game, Jass.
  • He was in the German Army from 1885-1886.
  • Alfred was married to Emma Giesker, whom he had a son, Alfred and a daughter, Charlotte.
  • He was already suffering from 1913, the year of his Noble Prize win, from arteriosclerosis and by 1915, it stopped him from being able to give up his general lectures on chemistry. This later lead to in 1919, him giving up his Professorship. He died from this disease at the early age of 53 on November 15, 1919.


Alfred Werner and Heike Kamerlingh stamp
Alfred Werner and Heike Kamerlingh stamp

Alfred Werner studying
Alfred Werner studying


Alfred Werner. Chemistry Encyclopedia. 2008. Chemistry Explained. 03 Oct. 2008 <>.

Alfred Werner. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 03 Oct. 2008 <>.

Alfred Werner. Wikipedia. 2008. Wikipedia-The Free Encyclopedia. 03 Oct. 2008 <>.

Alfred Werner. ACI-Zurich. Alfred Werner - Founder of Coordination Chemistry. 22 September 2003. <>.

By: Amy Do, Sylvia Tran, Jessica Le