Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Jöns Jacob Berzelius - One of the Founders of Modern Chemistry

Jöns Jacob Berzelius
(1779 – 1848)
On August 20, 1779, Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius was born. Berzelius is considered, along with Robert Boyle, John Dalton, and Antoine Lavoisier, to be one of the founders of modern chemistry. In Sweden, Berzelius Day is celebrated on 20 August in honor of him.

Jöns Jacob Berzelius was born in 1779 as the son of a teacher and was educated in Linköping, Sweden. His medical studies started in 1796 in Uppsala because this field of study was quite close to natural sciences and most likely provided a decent income. He studied under Anders Gustav Ekeberg, the chemist who discovered tantalum and after Berzelius left the university, his uncle organized him a job as a pharmacist. While in medical school at the University of Uppsala, he read about Alessandro Volta’s “electric pile” and while working at the Medevi mineral springs, a spa and health resort, Berzelius constructed one for himself from 60 zinc plates and 60 copper plates. His thesis for his medical degree was on the effect of electric shock on patients with various diseases, for instance paralysis. Even though he reported no improvement in his patients, his interest in electrochemical topics continued. In 1807 he was made a professor at the Medical College in Stockholm, which soon after became the Karolinsska Institute. A year later he began his long association with the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences [1,3].

Berzelius intended to create a textbook for his medical students and performed a series of experiments which made him most famous. With these experiments, he managed to establish that the elements in inorganic substances are bound together in definite proportions by weight. His increasing interest in all kinds of compounds led to his discovery of numerous elements, such as cerium, selenium, and thorium. Selenium was named after the moon goddess selene by Berzelius [3]. Also, several students worked together with the scientist and discovered several elements as well, including lithium and vanadium. Berzelius was then able to determine the atomic weight of almost all elements and he was motivated to create a logical system of symbols (H, Cl, Ca ...) [1,2].

Jöns Jacob Berzelius received 12 royal orders and was member of almost 100 academies and scientific societies around the globe. He was elevated to the nobility in 1818 and awarded the baronetcy in 1835. The scientist, who is on this day considered as one of the founders of modern chemistry passed away on August 7, 1848 [3].

At yovisto, you may be interested in a short documentary on Jöns Jacob Berzelius.

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