The four chiral centers in glucose indicate there may be as many as sixteen (24) stereoisomers having this constitution. These would exist as eight diastereomeric pairs of enantiomers, and the initial challenge was to determine which of the eight corresponded to glucose. This challenge was accepted and met in 1891 by the German chemist Emil Fischer. His successful negotiation of the stereochemical maze presented by the aldohexoses was a logical tour de force, and it is fitting that he received the 1902 Nobel Prize for chemistry for this accomplishment. One of the first tasks faced by Fischer was to devise a method of representing the configuration of each chiral center in an unambiguous manner. To this end, he invented a simple technique for drawing chains of chiral centers, that we now call the Fischer projection formula.
At the time Fischer undertook the glucose project it was not possible to establish the absolute configuration of an enantiomer. Consequently, Fischer made an arbitrary choice for (+)-glucose and established a network of related aldose configurations that he called the D-family. The mirror images of these configurations were then designated the L-family of aldoses. To illustrate using present day knowledge, Fischer projection formulas and names for the D-aldose family (three to six-carbon atoms) are shown below, with the asymmetric carbon atoms (chiral centers) colored red.
The last chiral center in an aldose chain (farthest from the aldehyde group) was chosen by Fischer as the D / L designator site. If the hydroxyl group in the projection formula pointed to the right, it was defined as a member of the D-family. A left directed hydroxyl group (the mirror image) then represented the L-family. Fischer's initial assignment of the D-configuration had a 50:50 chance of being right, but all his subsequent conclusions concerning the relative configurations of various aldoses were soundly based. In 1951 x-ray fluorescence studies of (+)-tartaric acid, carried out in the Netherlands by Johannes Martin Bijvoet (pronounced "buy foot"), proved that Fischer's choice was correct.
It is important to recognize that the sign of a compound's specific rotation (an experimental number) does not correlate with its configuration (D or L). It is a simple matter to measure an optical rotation with a polarimeter. Determining an absolute configuration usually requires chemical interconversion with known compounds by stereospecific reaction paths.
Prof. Steven Farmer (Sonoma State University)
William Reusch, Professor Emeritus (Michigan State U.), Virtual Textbook of Organic Chemistry