Alfred Werner
Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1913

The Impertinence of Genius

Alfred Werner revolutionized inorganic chemistry one night with a stroke of genius – and without conducting a single experiment.

A stroke of genius in the middle of the night was the beginning of Alfred Werner’s fame as a scientist: In 1892, the 26-year-old chemist was staying at the Hotel Pfauen at Heimplatz in Zurich. One night, Werner woke up with the solution to a problem that had long troubled him.

At two o’clock in the morning, he sat at his desk and, in a 17-hour marathon of thinking and writing, he set out the fundamentals of his coordination theory; a radical breakthrough that would ultimately revolutionize inorganic chemistry. Drinking countless cups of coffee to keep himself awake, Werner completed his work at five o’clock the following afternoon. The work resulting from this cerebral tour de force was titled “Beitrag zur Konstitution anorganischer Chemie” (on the constitution of inorganic chemistry) and was published in 1893 – the year in which he was appointed Professor of Chemistry at the University of Zurich

In his publication, Alfred Werner developed entirely new ideas on how inorganic complex compounds are arranged spatially, thus creating the basis for modern complex chemistry. Most remarkably, Werner’s groundbreaking theory was a purely intellectual feat: At that time, he had had not carried out a single experiment on the subject. As such, he confirmed Albert Einstein’s dictum that imagination is more important than knowledge. A German colleague later described Werner’s grand achievement as “the impertinence of genius.”

For his new theory, which in the following years was indeed underpinned by experiments, Werner was awarded the Noble Prize for Chemistry in 1913, the first Swiss to be so honored.