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Jöns Jakob Berzelius (1779–1848)

Nature volume 162, page 210 (07 August 1948) | Download Citation



WHEN he died a century ago on August 7, 1848, Berzelius was not only the most famous chemist of the World, but also the autocrat of the world of chemistry. The son of a schoolmaster, he was born near Linköping on August 29, 1779. After studying medicine and chemistry at Uppsala, at the age of twenty-three he was appointed assistant professor of botany and pharmacy at Stockholm, and full professor in 1807. During 1815–32 he held the chair of chemistry in the Caroline Medico-Chirurgical Institution. In 1818 he became perpetual secretary of the Stockholm Academy of Sciences, and received a title of nobility, with permission to retain his name. Seventeen years later, on the occasion of his marriage, he Was made Freiherr. Berzelius spent some ten years determining with great accuracy the atomic and molecular Weights of more than two thousand chemical substances ; he isolated selenium, thorium, silicon, titanium and zirconium, and also prepared and examined many organic compounds. He devised the present system of chemical symbols. His "Lehr-buch der Chemie", begun in 1808, went through five editions and, in various translations, spread his fame over Europe. His dualistic electrochemical theory exerted a profound influence on the progress of chemistry. Though Berzelius worked in the simplest of laboratories, his reputation attracted students from many countries. In his hands the blow-pipe became the symbol of qualitative dry analysis. Distinguished in appearance, inclined to be portly, neat in attire and habits, cordial and unassuming, Berzelius was vigorous in body and mind, though essentially conservative in his outlook. Of his characteristic sayings the following may serve as a sample : "The devil may Write text-books of chemistry, for every few years the whole thing changes".

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