Urine doesn't look particularly spectacular when it's sprinkled over a toilet seat, but in the 19th century, it was proof that organic life was truly special. Until a scientist came along and destroyed everyone's pee-based delusions of grandeur.

Every day you are flushing away gold. Urea, a common ingredient in urine, has a thousand and one uses. It's used as a way of getting nitrogen into the soil in fertilizer. It's in heavy-duty skin creams, to promote hydration of the skin. It reduces pollutants in diesel gas. It's an important part of fuel cells. And it's used for all kinds of protein manipulation in the lab. It's equally effective at manipulating protein inside the body, where it hangs out in the kidney playing multiple roles in a complicated system that gets waste products out of the blood.


Urea is so special that at one point in time, no scientists believed it could be produced by anything other than an organic system. This was a philosophy known as vitalism. Only organic life could produce the compounds associated with organic life. The living and non-living worlds were mutually exclusive.

One could say that this was where hotshot chemist Friedrich Wöhler burst onto the scene, but it would be more fair to say he tumbled onto the scene. While Wöhler was a smart and respected chemist, he didn't set his sights on vitalism. He simply set his sights on making ammonium cyanate. And he was having trouble. His various experiments were giving him nothing but a strange white powder filled with impurities. He worked with multiple dangerous elements, including lead, until he finally came up with combining lead cyanate and ammonium hydroxide. I know, crazy, right? Still, sometimes risks pay off.


But not this time. Again, Wöhler again got nothing but that useless white powder. This powder, however, seemed to be pure enough to give him a clue as to what it was. He started doing tests, narrowing down what it could be, and found himself overjoyed to have his hands covered with synthetic urine. He was the first person to knowingly produce the very stuff of life - or at least the stuff that life produced.

Vitalism didn't last long after that. Wöhler had many other achievements, but he remains most famous for synthetic pee. Oh, like you could make it.

Top Image: Arcadiuš

[Via Chemistry Explained, Human Touch of Chemistry.]