Berzelius, Jöns Jacob (1779 - 1848)

Swedish chemist

Born in Väversunda, Sweden, Berzelius's early life was marked by a struggle to obtain a satisfactory education. In 1796 he entered the University of Uppsala but his studies were interrupted because of lack of funds. He began his chemical experiments without any official encouragement and from 1799 he worked during the summers as a physician at Medevi Springs where he analyzed the waters. He finally obtained his MD degree in 1802 with a dissertation on the medical uses of the voltaic pile.

After graduating Berzelius moved to Stockholm where he did research with Wilhelm Hisinger (1766-1852), a mining chemist. Their first success came in 1803 with the isolation of cerium but they were anticipated in this by Martin Klaproth. Berzelius later discovered selenium (1817), thorium (1828), and his coworkers discovered lithium (1818) and vanadium (1830).

In 1807 Berzelius was appointed professor at the School of Surgery in Stockholm (later the Karolinska Institute), and he was soon able to abandon medicine and to concentrate on chemistry. Berzelius was a meticulous experimenter and systemizer of chemistry. His early work was on electrochemistry and he formed a 'dualistic' view of compounds, in which they were composed of positive and negative parts. He was an ardent supporter of John Dalton's atomic theory, but, like Lavoisier, believed in the importance of oxygen - thus, he argued for many years that chlorine contained oxygen.

In 1810 Berzelius began a long series of studies on combining proportions that established Dalton's atomic theory on a quantitative basis. This work led to tables of atomic weights that were generally very accurate, but he never accepted Amedeo Avogadro's hypothesis and this led to some confusion. He was a prolific author with about 250 papers to his credit. His Lärbok i kemien (1808-1818; Textbook of Chemistry) subsequently passed through many editions and was translated into most languages except English. Pupils who came to study with him included Friedrich Wöhler, Leopold Gmelin, and Eilhard Mitscherlich. His ideas on chemical proportions and electrochemistry are set out in Essai sur la théorie des proportions chimiques et sur l'influence chimique de l'électricité (1819; Essay on the Theory of Chemical Proportions and on the Chemical Effects of Electricity).

Berzelius's work in organic chemistry was less fruitful than the rest of his work but he improved organic analysis by introducing a tube of calcium chloride for the collection of water and the use of copper(II) oxide as an oxidizing agent. From 1835 Berzelius's rigid adherence to the dualistic theory proved obstructive to progress in organic chemistry, although it was given a certain plausibility by Wöhler and Justus von Liebig's discovery of the benzoyl radical (1832). Berzelius introduced much of the familiar chemical apparatus, including rubber tubing and filter paper, and the modern chemical symbols, although these were little used in his lifetime. He had a knack of coining words for phenomena and substances - 'catalysis', 'protein', and 'isomerism' were all introduced by him.

A Dictionary of Scientists, Oxford University Press, © Market House Books Ltd 1999