How Did Organic Compounds Get Their Name?

Organic compounds make up all living organisms and play a crucial role in biological processes. But where did the term ‘organic’ come from and how did these carbon-based molecules get their unique names? If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Organic compounds were named by early chemists to distinguish them from inorganic minerals. They described extracted substances like caffeine, glucose and citric acid as organic because they originated from biological organisms. Read on to learn the full history behind the naming of organic compounds.

The Etymology of ‘Organic’ Chemistry

Have you ever wondered how the field of organic chemistry got its name? The term ‘organic’ in chemistry refers to compounds that contain carbon atoms. But why is it called ‘organic’? Let’s delve into the fascinating etymology of this branch of chemistry.

The Vital Force Theory

The origins of the term ‘organic’ can be traced back to the Vital Force Theory, which was popular in the 18th century. According to this theory, organic compounds were thought to possess a special life force that distinguished them from inorganic compounds. It was believed that organic compounds could only be synthesized by living organisms, while inorganic compounds could be produced through non-living processes.

However, this theory was later disproven by the famous German chemist Friedrich Wöhler.

Wöhler’s Urea Synthesis

In 1828, Friedrich Wöhler conducted an experiment that shook the foundations of the Vital Force Theory. He successfully synthesized urea, an organic compound found in urine, from inorganic starting materials. This groundbreaking discovery demonstrated that organic compounds could be artificially produced, contradicting the prevailing belief that they could only be derived from living organisms.

Wöhler’s experiment marked a significant turning point in the history of organic chemistry. It challenged the notion that there was a fundamental difference between organic and inorganic compounds, leading to the abandonment of the Vital Force Theory and the birth of modern organic chemistry.

Today, organic chemistry plays a crucial role in various scientific disciplines, including medicine, pharmacology, and materials science. It involves the study of the structure, properties, composition, reactions, and synthesis of organic compounds. Organic chemists work to understand and manipulate the behavior of carbon-containing molecules, leading to the development of new drugs, materials, and technologies.

To learn more about the fascinating world of organic chemistry, you can visit websites like American Chemical Society or Organic Chemistry Portal, where you can find a wealth of information on this subject.

Early Identification and Naming of Organic Compounds

The early identification and naming of organic compounds was a significant milestone in the field of chemistry. It marked the beginning of a systematic approach to understanding the complex nature of carbon-based substances. In this article, we will explore how organic compounds were first identified and named.

Extraction of Organic Substances

The first step in identifying organic compounds was the extraction of these substances from natural sources. Chemists would isolate compounds from plants, animals, and other organic materials through various techniques such as distillation, extraction, and purification. This allowed them to obtain pure samples for further analysis.

One of the pioneers in this field was Friedrich Wöhler, who in 1828 successfully synthesized urea, a compound found in urine, from inorganic materials. This groundbreaking experiment disproved the long-held belief that organic compounds could only be obtained from living organisms. It opened the door to the possibility of artificially creating organic substances in the laboratory.

Developing a Classification System

As more organic compounds were discovered and synthesized, chemists faced the challenge of organizing and classifying these substances. In the mid-19th century, a system of nomenclature was developed to provide a standardized way of naming organic compounds.

The development of the classification system was greatly influenced by the work of August Kekulé, who proposed the concept of valence and the tetravalent nature of carbon. This understanding allowed chemists to understand the bonding patterns of carbon atoms and predict the structure of organic compounds.

The classification system is based on the structure and functional groups present in the organic compound. Functional groups are specific arrangements of atoms within a molecule that determine its reactivity and chemical properties. By identifying the functional groups present in a compound, chemists can classify and name it accordingly.

For example, alcohols are organic compounds that contain a hydroxyl (-OH) functional group. Carboxylic acids, on the other hand, contain a carboxyl (-COOH) group. The presence of these functional groups allows chemists to assign specific names to different organic compounds.

Modern Principles for Naming Organic Compounds

When it comes to naming organic compounds, there are certain principles that have been established to ensure consistency and clarity. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) plays a crucial role in setting the standards for naming organic compounds.

IUPAC Nomenclature

The IUPAC nomenclature system provides a set of rules for naming organic compounds based on their structure and functional groups. This system helps chemists communicate effectively and avoid confusion when discussing various compounds.

According to the IUPAC rules, the name of an organic compound is derived from its structure, with the main chain of carbon atoms serving as the backbone. The functional groups attached to this main chain are then identified and named accordingly.

For example, let’s consider the compound with the formula C6H12O6. Following the IUPAC rules, we identify it as a six-carbon chain with an aldehyde functional group. The compound is commonly known as glucose.

Common Names vs. Systematic Names

Before the development of the IUPAC nomenclature system, organic compounds were often referred to by their common names. These names were often derived from their source or historical significance.

While common names can sometimes be useful, they can also lead to confusion and inconsistencies. The IUPAC nomenclature system provides a systematic approach that is universally accepted and understood by chemists worldwide.

For example, the compound commonly known as acetone is systematically named as propanone according to the IUPAC rules. This systematic name clearly indicates its structure and functional groups, making it easier to understand and communicate.

It’s important to note that the IUPAC nomenclature system is constantly evolving to keep up with new discoveries and advancements in organic chemistry. This ensures that the naming of organic compounds remains accurate and standardized.

If you’re interested in learning more about the IUPAC nomenclature system and the principles behind naming organic compounds, you can visit the official IUPAC website at


The naming of organic compounds originated from vitalism theories of living organisms in the 18th century. Extracted substances like sucrose and citric acid were termed ‘organic’ to distinguish them from inorganic minerals. As chemists isolated and identified more carbon-based molecules, systematic naming conventions were developed by chemistry organizations. While common names are still used today, IUPAC nomenclature provides a standardized system for naming the vast variety of organic compounds identified so far.

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