Alfred Werner (1866–1919)

Professor of chemistry

Alfred Werner was born in Mulhouse (Alsace) on 12 December 1866. His degree brought him to Switzerland: Werner was enrolled as a student at the Federal Polytechnical School (later ETH Zurich) from the beginning of the 1886/87 academic year until he obtained his degree as a technical chemist on 3 August 1889. He subsequently became an assistant under Professor Georg Lunge.


The title of his 1890 dissertation was "Über räumliche Anordnungen der Atome in stickstoffhaltigen Molekülen". Werner conducted his research at the Federal Polytechnical School under the supervision of Arthur Rudolf Hantzsch. As the Polytechnic was not entitled to award doctorates at that stage, however, the examinations were hosted by the University of Zurich.

Habilitation and appointment as ordinarius

His dissertation was followed by a brief stint under Marcellin Berthelot at the Collège de France. From 4 January 1892, however, he was back at the Federal Polytechnical School in Zurich as a senior lecturer, where he completed his habilitation with the project "Beiträge zur Theorie der Affinität und Valenz". The work was incorporated into the article "Beitrag zur Constitution anorganischer Verbindungen" in 1893, which would serve as the basis for Werner's later work. He resigned from the polytechnic on 28 September 1893 to take up a position at the University of Zurich, where he was appointed as the successor to Professor Viktor Merz for the 1893/94 winter semester – initially as an associate professor then, two years later, a full professor of chemistry.  

Coordination theory

Alfred Werner was the first to recognise the fundamental principle of complex chemistry and formulated the conceptual bases of coordination compounds. With the aid of coordination theory, it was possible to place thousands of inorganic compounds on a uniform basis and explain their relationships to each other in a simple manner. As this was at the time contrary to the prevalent school of thought regarding the composition of molecules and he primarily derived his ideas from theoretical considerations, his theories were initially contested.  

Extensive material was needed to substantiate the coordination theory experimentally. Consequently, Werner spent years conducting thousands of experiments with his students and produced inorganic coordination compounds. By synthesising a large number of complex compounds, especially ones that he had predicted existed based on his theory, he was able to prove his coordination theory. Today, his work still forms the theoretical basis for complex chemistry.

Award of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry

In 1913 Werner became the first Swiss chemist and the first inorganic chemist ever to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry: "In recognition of his work on atomic bonding in molecules, which shed new light onto earlier studies and opened up new research fields, especially in inorganic chemistry."

On 18 April 1914 ETH Zurich awarded Alfred Werner an honorary doctorate of technical sciences, "In honour of his outstanding work in the field of general chemistry, which also seems to promote technology." Werner had to abandon his teaching activities at the University of Zurich in 1919 due to a serious illness. He died the same year on 15 November, a few weeks shy of his fifty-third birthday.


Werners Handschrift

Extract from a letter from Alfred Werner to Arturo Miolati (1869–1956) dated 13 July 1893, informing him
of his appointment at the University of Zurich. (ETH-Bibliothek, ETH Zurich University Archives, Hs 373:9)


Some publications by Alfred Werner are available at ETH-Bibliothek (Knowledge Portal). The ETH Zurich University Archives also contain a brief correspondence between Werner and Wilhelm Fiedler, a professor of descriptive geometry at ETH Zurich, and letters to his fellow student at ETH Zurich and later professor of chemistry Arturo Miolati. A biographical dossier provides information on the life of Alfred Werner and the original register documents his degree at the Federal Polytechnical School.