Georg Wittig (June 16, 1897 – August 26, 1987) was a German chemist who reported a method for synthesis of alkenes from aldehydes and ketones using compounds called phosphonium ylides in the Wittig reaction. He shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Herbert Charles Brown in 1979.
Wittig was born in Berlin, Germany and shortly after his birth he moved with his family to Kassel, where his father was professor at the applied arts high school. He attended school in Kassel and started studying chemistry at the University of Tübingen 1916. He was drafted and became a lieutenant in the cavallery of Hesse-Kassel. After being a English prisoner of war from 1918 till 1919 the restart of his chemistry studies was complicated, due to the overcrowded universities. By a direct plea to Karl von Auwers, who was professor for organic chemistry at the University of Marburg at time, he was able rejoin a university. After 3 years he was rewarded his PhD in organic chemistry. Karl von Auwers was able to convince him to start an academic career, which yielded his habilitation in 1926. He became a close friend to Karl Ziegler, who was also doing his habilitation with Auwers during that time. The successor of Karl von Auwers Hans Meerwein assumed Wittig as lecturer, partly because he was impressed by the new 400 page book on stereochemistry that Wittig had written. In 1931 he married Waltraud Ernst, a colleague from the Auwers working group. The invitation of Karl Fries brought him as professor to the Technical University at Brunswick in 1932. The time in Brunswick became more and more problematic as the Nazis tried to get rid of Karl Fries and Wittig showed solidarity with him. After forced emeritation of Fries, in 1937 Hermann Staudinger offered Wittig a position at the University of Freiburg, partly because he knew Wittig from his book on stereochemistry in which he supported the highly criticized theory on macromolecules of Staudinger. The foundations of the carbanion chemistry was laid during the time in Freiburg. In 1944 Wittig succeeded the head of the organic department Wilhelm Schlenk at the University of Tübingen. Most of the scientific work like the Wittig reaction was done during the time at the University of Thübingen. The 1956 appointment of the nearly sixty year old Wittig as head of the organics department at the University of Heidelberg as successor of Karl Freudenberg was exceptional even at that time. The newly built department and the close connection to the BASF convinced Wittig to take this opportunity. He worked at the University of Heidelberg even after his emeritation in 1967 and published papers until 1980. Most of his awards were presented in the time in Heidelberg, such as the honorary doctor of the Sorbonne in 1956 and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1979.
Wittig's contributions also include the preparation of phenyllithium and the discovery of the 1,2-Wittig rearrangement and the 2,3-Wittig rearrangement.
Wittig was well known in the chemistry community for being a consummate experimenter and observer of chemical transformations, while caring very little for the theoretical and mechanistic underpinnings of the work he produced.
Werner Tochtermann (1997). "Obituary: Georg Wittig (1897-1987)". Liebigs Annalen vol. 1997 (no. 3): p.I-XXI. doi:10.1002/jlac.199719970303.
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