Scientist Highlight: Robert Behrend

Born in Harburg (now part of Hamburg) Germany in 1856, Robert Behrend was born a son of a trader and grew up in the boroughs of Hamburg. In 1876 he joined the Infantry Regiment and began studying law in Freiburg im Breisgau. Interest waned, and Behrend shifted to studying Physics under Emil Warburg. Within a year he had moved to Leipzig and tried to switch to studying Chemistry under Herman Kolbe, who rejected Behrend for ‘knowing nothing’. Gustav Heinrich Weidermann saw however saw potential, and accepted Behrend as a student. He received his Ph.D. 4 years later in 1881.

Behrend had a very successful career in academia, beginning as a research assistant within the physical chemistry institute of Leipzig University. In 1885 he became a Privatdozent (PD), a university scholar with habilitation (like a secondary doctorate), allowing supervision of PhD students. Within 4 years he was a made a full professor. He moved to the Hannover Technische Hochschule (Hochschule Hannover) in 1895 and was made a professor of both organic and physical chemistry. He continued to teach and research there for the remainder of his career, which included being awarded a gold medal at the chemical expositions in Chicago (1893) and St. Louis (1904) and an honorary degree from the Technische Hochschule of Danzig in 1924.

Behrend was critical in a variety of discoveries within the field of synthetic organic chemistry, especially focused on materials with biological importance. His first big breakthrough was in 1888, being one of the first to synthesise uric acid (C₅H₄N₄O₃) and revealing the compound as a purine derivative. This was done by condensing urea with ethyl acetate, forming a β-uramidocrotonic ester. Through a series of steps, this was converted to isodialuric acid and then condensed with urea to form uric acid. By 1882, Emil Fischer had proposed structural formulas for a variety of purines, including uric acid. Behrend’s subsequent experiment confirmed these formulas.

Another key moment in Behrend’s career was carrying out the first potentiometric titration in 1893 at the Ostwald’s Institute in Leipzig. He titrated mercurous solution with potassium chloride, potassium bromide, and potassium iodide. Wilhelm Bottger then further developed the tool while working at the institute and used it to study the differences in titration between strong and weak acids, as well as the behaviour of polybasic acids. Potentiometric titration is still a key technique used within a variety of analytical chemical fields in the modern day!

Behrend also made great strides within carbohydrate chemistry. He identified that d-glucose existed in two forms (α- and β-glucose) in 1904. He then went on to develop a method for the preparation of β-form in 1910 and in the same year began investigating the isomeric phenylhydrazones of glucose; those investigations provided proof of a ring structure in d-glucose.

Although a fit and healthy person and keen outdoorsman, Behrend’s health declined in the early 20’s, and he retired in 1924. He passed away during a notable typhoid outbreak in 1926.

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