What is organic chemistry?

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The study of the properties, reactivity and synthesis of molecules based upon carbon.

Organic chemistry was first developed in the 1770's when Torbern Bergman, a Swedish chemist made the distinction between organic and inorganic substances.[1] Originally, organic chemistry was the study of the chemistry of living systems, but an experiment by Frederick Wöhler proved that an aqueous solution of ammonium cyanate (an inorganic compound) could be heated to produce urea, an organic compound:

Figure 1.1.1

This finding went quite contrary to the status quo of vitalism, and Wöhler met with dispute regarding his results. Vitalism had been the standard theory of organic compounds stating that there was an essential "vital force" required for the synthesis of organic products and thus only in living organisms could such processes occur (hence organic chemistry). However, the definition of organic chemistry has been refined to the study of carbon compounds as well as their unique structure, reactions, and properties.

Today we see the word "organic" as being used to distinguish between that which is derived from living organisms as opposed to that which is synthesized by a chemical process. However, while there may be clear benefits to the neglect of using synthetic compounds for nutrition, it is arguable that in certain occasions "organic" is better than "synthetic." An excellent example of this is the use ascorbic acid (vitamin C). In a pure sample, it is not a sound argument to state that "organic" vitamin C is more beneficial than "synthetic" vitamin C, because both substances are identical in all aspects.[2]

Making molecules is of central importance

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For example, look at the drug Taxol. It is derived from the bark of a yew tree, and its anti-cancer activity was first recorded in 1964.[3] Its unique mechanism of action was established in 1979, however clinical trials were delayed due to a supply problem.[4] Finally in the 1990s Taxol was approved for treatment of ovarian, breast and non-small-cell lung cancers.

The best selling drugs in the world

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Organic chemistry generates wealth! Of course, understanding the shapes of molecules and how functional groups interact is essential in making molecules that will earn money.

Product Approval year Lifetime sales ($) Treatment Class
Lipitor 1996 140,750,000,000 Dyslipidemia Small organic molecule
Plavix 1997 74,744,000,000 Atherosclerosis Small organic molecule
Seretide 2001 72,249,000,000 Asthma/COPD Small organic molecule
Remicade 1998 58,426,000,000 Autoimmune diseases Monoclonal antibody
Enbrel 1998 56,632,000,000 Autoimmune diseases Fusion protein
Zyprexa 1996 56,261,000,000 Schizophrenia Small organic molecule
Rituxan 1997 51,962,000,000 Autoimmune diseases Monoclonal antibody
Diovan 1997 51,903,000,000 Hypertension Small organic molecule
Nexium 2001 48,175,000,000 Gastroesophageal reflux Small organic molecule
Singulair 1998 43,246,000,000 Asthma Small organic molecule


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  1. McMurry, John. Organic Chemistry. 6th Edition
  2. Solomons, T.W. Graham and Fryhle, Craig B. Organic Chemistry. 8th Edition
  3. Goodman and Walsh, p51
  4. Goodman and Walsh, p97

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