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20.1: Prelude to Organic Chemistry

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  • All living things on earth are formed mostly of carbon compounds. The prevalence of carbon compounds in living things has led to the epithet “carbon-based” life. The truth is we know of no other kind of life. Early chemists regarded substances isolated from organisms (plants and animals) as a different type of matter that could not be synthesized artificially, and these substances were thus known as organic compounds. The widespread belief called vitalism held that organic compounds were formed by a vital force present only in living organisms. The German chemist Friedrich Wohler was one of the early chemists to refute this aspect of vitalism, when, in 1828, he reported the synthesis of urea, a component of many body fluids, from nonliving materials. Since then, it has been recognized that organic molecules obey the same natural laws as inorganic substances, and the category of organic compounds has evolved to include both natural and synthetic compounds that contain carbon. Some carbon-containing compounds are not classified as organic, for example, carbonates and cyanides, and simple oxides, such as CO and CO2. Although a single, precise definition has yet to be identified by the chemistry community, most agree that a defining trait of organic molecules is the presence of carbon as the principal element, bonded to hydrogen and other carbon atoms.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): All organic compounds contain carbon and most are formed by living things, although they are also formed by geological and artificial processes. (credit left: modification of work by Jon Sullivan; credit left middle: modification of work by Deb Tremper; credit right middle: modification of work by “annszyp”/Wikimedia Commons; credit right: modification of work by George Shuklin)

    Today, organic compounds are key components of plastics, soaps, perfumes, sweeteners, fabrics, pharmaceuticals, and many other substances that we use every day. The value to us of organic compounds ensures that organic chemistry is an important discipline within the general field of chemistry. In this chapter, we discuss why the element carbon gives rise to a vast number and variety of compounds, how those compounds are classified, and the role of organic compounds in representative biological and industrial settings.