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Mendeleeff's Life and Work

The Career of a Great Chemist

DMITRI IVANOVITSCH MENDELEEF† was the fourteenth and youngest child of his parents, Ivan Pavlovitsch and Maria Dmitrievna, wee Kornileff. His father, a former student of the Chief Pedagogic Institute of St. Petersburg, obtained the appointment of director of the gymnasium at Tobolsk, in Siberia, where he met Maria Dmitrievna, who became his wife. After a few years at Tobolsk he was transferred to school directorships in Russia, first at Tambov and afterward at Saratov; but in order to satisfy the ardent wish of his wife, he took advantage of an opportunity of exchange, by which he became once more director of the college at Tobolsk, and the family returned to Siberia. Here on January 27th, 1834 (0. S.) was born Dmitri Ivanovitsch, the youngest son. Soon after his birth the father became gradually blind from cataract in both eyes, and was obliged to resign, the whole family, including eight children, having to subsist on a small pension of 1,000 roubles (about £100 per annum). The mother, Maria Dmitrievna, belonged to the old Russian family Kornileff, settled at Tobolsk. They were the first to establish in Siberia the manufacture of paper and glass. In 1787 the grandfather of Dmitri opened at Tobolsk the first printing press, and from 1789 produced the first newspaper in Siberia, the lrtysch. The glass works were situated in the village of Aremziansky, a short distance from Tobolsk. There can be no doubt the mother was a woman possessed of remarkable vigor of mind, who exercised great influence over her children. Her activity and capacity are further illustrated by the fact that when her husband became blind she revived the business of the glass works, and carried it on until after his death from consumption in 1847. Tobolsk was at that time a place of banishment for many political exiles, the so-called Decembrists, one of whom, Bassargin, married Olga, an elder sister of Dmitri. To these Decembrists the boy owed his first interest in natural science. His mother had always cherished the hope that at least one of her children would devote himself to science, and accordingly, after her husband's death and the destruction of the glass works by fire, and in spite of failing health and scanty means, she undertook the long and tedious journey from Tobolsk to Moscow, accompanied by her remaining children, Elizabeth and Dmitri Ivanovitsch, with the object of entering the latter, then nearly fifteen years of age, at the university. Disappointed in this object, owing to official difficulties, she removed in the spring of 1850 to St. Petersburg, where ultimately, with the assistance of the director, Pletnoff, of the Central Pedagogic Institute, a friend of her late husband, she succeeded in securing for her son admission to the physico-mathemati-cal faculty of the Institute, together with much-needed pecuniary assistance from the government. The debt which Dmitri Ivanovitsch owed to his mother he acknowledged later in the introduction to his work on “Solutions,” which he dedicated to her memory. In the Pedagogic Institute, Dmitri Ivanovitsch was thus able to devote himself to the mathematical and physical sciences under the guidance of Profs. Leng and Kupfer in physics, Woskresensky in chemistry, and Ostragradsky in mathematics. Unfortunately, at the end of his course his health failed, and about this time his mother died. Having been ordered to the south, he fortunately obtained an appointment as chief science master at Simferopol, in the Crimea. The southern climate soon alleviated the serious symptoms of lung disorder, and removal being necessary in consequence of the Crimean war, he was able soon afterward to undertake a pos,t as teacher of mathematics and physics at the gymnasium at Odessa. In 1856 he returned to St. Petersburg, and at the early age of twenty-two was appointed privat-docent in the * The Mcndeleeff Memorial Lecture delivered before the Chemical Society Gn October 21, 1909, by Sir William A. Tildon, F.R.S. Abridged from the Journal of the Society for December, 1909. f For many of the details of Mendcleff's career and of his home life the writer is indebted to the family chronicle compiled, soon after his death, by his niece, N. J. Guhkina (nee Kapustina), and published in St. Petersburg, also to pamphlets by A. Archangelsky and P. J. Robinowitsch. He also desires to express his thanks to Mr. D. V. Jequier, of St. Petersburg, as well as to several Russian friends, for valuable assistance in translation. University, having secured his certificate as master in chemistry. At this time he appears to have passed rapidly from one subject to another, but he soon found matter for serious and protracted study in the physical properties of liquids, especially in their expansion by heat; and when, in 1859, by permission of the Minister of Public Instruction, Mendeleeff proceeded to study under Regnault in Paris and afterward in Heidelberg, he devoted himself to this work, communicating his results to Liebig's Annalen and the French Academy of Sciences. Returning two years later to St. Petersburg, he secured his doctorate, and was soon afterward appointed professor of chemistry in the Technological Institute. In 1866 he became professor of general chemistry in the University, Butlerow at the same time occupying the chair of organic chemistry. As a teacher, Mendeleeff seems to have possessed a special talent for rousing a desire for knowledge, and his lecture room was often filled with students from all faculties of the University. Many of his former students remember gratefully the influence he exercised over them. One of Mendeleeff's most remarkable personal features was his flowing abundance of hair. The story goes that, before he was presented to the late Emperor, Alexander III., his Majesty was curious to know whether the professor would have his hair cut. This, however, was not done, and he appeared at Court without passing under the hands of the barber. His habit was to cut his hair once a year, in spring, before the warm weather set in. His eyes, though rather deep set, were bright blue, and to the end of his life retained their penetrating glance. Tall in stature, though with slightly stooping shoulders, his hands noticeable for their fine form and expressive gestures, the whole figure proclaimed the grand Russian of the province of Tver. At home, Mendeleeff always wore an easy garment of his own design, something like a Norfolk jacket without a belt, of dark gray cloth. He rarely wore uniform or evening coat, and attached no importance to ribbons and decorations, of which he had many. As to his views on social and political questions, many people thought him a rigid monarchist, but he said of himself that he was an evolutionist of peaceable type, desiring a new religion, of which the characteristic should be subordination of the individual to the general good. He always viewed with much sympathy what is called the feminine question. At the Office of Weights and Measures he employed several ladies, and about 1870 he gave lectures on chemistry to classes of ladies. Mendeleeff held decided views on the subject of education, which he set forth in several publications, especially “Remarks on Public Instruction in Russia” (1901). Here he says:”The fundamental direction of Russian education should be living and real, not based on dead languages, grammatical rules, and dialectical discussions, which, without experimental control, bring self-deceit, illusion, presumption, and selfishness.” Believing in the soothing effect of a vital realism in schools, he considered that universal peace and the brotherhood of nations could only be brought about by the operation of this principle. Speaking of the reforms desirable, he says that “for such reforms are required many strong realists; classicists are only fit to be landowners, capitalists, civil servants, men of letter critics, describing and discussing, but helping only indirectly the cause of popular needs. We could live at the present day without a Plato, but a double number of Newtons is required to discover the secrets of nature, and to bring life into harmony with the laws of nature.” Mendeleeff was evidently a philosopher of the same type as our own Francis Bacon. In 1863, when twenty-nine years of age, Mendeleeff married his first wife, m'x Lestshoff, by whom he had one son, Vladimir,* and a daughter, Olga; but the marriage proved unhappy, and after living apart for some time there was a divorce. In 1881 he married a young lady artist, Anna Ivanovna Popova, of Cossack origin, and lived first at the University and afterward in the apartments built for the director at * Died in 1899, aged thirty-four, the Bureau of Weights and Measures. Here his younger children were born, Lioubov (Aimee), Ivan (Jean), and the twins, Maria and Vassili (Basile). In 1890, in consequence of a difference with the administration, Mendeleeff retired from the professorship in the University. During the disturbances among the students in that year, he succeeded in pacifying them by promising to present their petition to the Minister of Education. Instead of thanks for this service, however, the professor received a sharp reprimand from the authorities for not minding his own business. The consequence was that Mendeleeff resigned. Independently of the petition, however, there were probably deeper reasons for his being out of favor with the Ministry, connected with his irreconcilable enmity to the classical system of education already referred to. Of this he made no secret, and it had already brought him into conflict with the authorities. In 1893, however, he was appointed by M. Witte to the office of Director of the Bureau of Weights and Measures, which he retained until his death. Such are the chief features of a great personality. If it be admitted that stories are told of his occasional irritability of temper, we can well place on the other side of the account the cordial relations always subsisting between the professor and his assistants, the confidence and respect between the master and his servants, the deep affection between the father and his children, which are known to have persisted throughout his life, and which could be illustrated by many anecdotes. These stories merely serve “to give the world assurance of a man.” For us who live on the other side of Europe, separated as we are by race, by language, by national and social customs, and by form of government, it is not easy to understand completely the texture of such a mind, the quality of such genius, and the conditions, social or political, which may have served to encourage or to repress its activity. The Russian language may be eloquent, expressive, versatile, and harmonious, or it may possess any other good quality that may be claimed for it by those to whom it is a mother tongue, but the fact remains that it is a barrier to free intercourse between the Russian people and the world outside the Russian empire. This alone creates a condition which must influence the development of thought, and must give to Russian science and philosophy a color of its own. Mendeleeff was, like many educated Russians, a man of very liberal views on such subjects as education, the position of women, on art and science, and probably on national government. We can hardly guess what would be the influence on such a nature of a rigid administrative regime which forbids even the discussion of such questions. We in England are almost unable to imagine such a state of things as would be represented by the closing of, say, University College for a year or more, because the question whether the House of Lords ought to be abolished had been debated in the Students' Union. Imagine the professor of chemistry, along with his colleagues, for such a reason deprived of the use of his laboratory by the police, and only allowed to resume his studies when someone down at Scotland Yard thought proper. Such being the experience of most of the Russian universities and technical high schools, it is not surprising that the output of Rus-scian science, notwithstanding the acknowledged genius of the Russian people, appears sometimes comparatively small. The amount of work done by Mendeleeff, both experimental and theoretical, was prodigious, and all the more remarkable considering the cloudy atmosphere under which so much of it was accomplished.* In 1882 the Royal Society conferred on Mendeleeff, jointly with Lothar Meyer, the Davy medal. In 1883 the Chemical Society elected him an honorary member, and in 1889 it conferred upon him the highest distinction in its power to award, namely, the Faraday lectureship, with which is associated the Faraday * Prof. Walden, at the end of a biographical notice recently published in the Berichtc d. Deut. Chem. Ges., April, 1909, gives a list of 262 printed publications by Mcndeleeff. These include, not only memoirs on physical and chemical subjects, but books, pamphlets, reports, and newspaper articles relating to exhibitions, to the industries of Russia, to weights and measures, to education, to art, and even to spiritualism, medal. In 1890 he was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, and in 1905 he received the Copley medal. So far as England is concerned, his services to science received full acknowledgment. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that he never became a member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg. Toward the end of 1906 M'endeleeff's health began to fail. Nevertheless he was able to attend the Minister on the occasion of an official visit in January to the office of Weights and Measures, but he caught cold and, enfeebled as he had been by influenza in the preceding autumn, inflammation of the lungs set in. Retaining consciousness almost to the last, he requested even on the day of his death to be read to from the “Journey to the North Pole,” by his favorite author, Jules Verne. He died in the early morning of January 20th (0. S.), 1907, within a few days of his seventy-third birthday. He was buried in the Wolkowo Cemetery beside the graves of his mother and son. Turning now to a survey of Mendeleeff's work as a man of science, it will be sufficient if we pass lightly over his first essays. Like so many other chemists, he began by handling simple questions of fact, his first paper, dated 1854, when he was twenty years of age, being on the composition of certain specimens of orthite. It was not until 1859 that he settled down to serious examination of the physical properties of liquids, which led him to a long series of experiments on the thermal dilatation of liquids, of which the chief ultimate outcome was the establishment of a simple expression for the expansion of liquids between 0 deg. and the boiling point. This formula is liable to the same kind of modification which has been found necessary in the case, of gases. It is, of course, applicable only to an ideal liquid from which all known liquids differ by reason of differences of chemical constitution and consequent differences of density, viscosity, and other properties. Mendeleeff devoted a large amount of time and of experimental skill to the estimation of the densities of various solutions, especially mixtures of alcohol and water and of sulphuric acid and water, and of aqueous solutions of a large number of salts. In 1889 lie embodied the whole in the monograph already referred to. In a paper communicated to the Transactions in 1887 (li., 779), he stated his views in the following words: “Solutions may be regarded as strictly definite atomic chemical combinations at temperatures higher than their dissociation temperatures. Definite chemical substances may be either formed or decomposed at temperatures which are higher than those at which dissociation commences; the same phenomenon occurs in solutions; at ordinary temperatures they can be either formed or decomposed.” These views, however, did not prevent his recognizing Van 't Hoff's gas theory as applicable to dilute solutions. In conjunction with some of his students, Mendeleeff also studied minutely the question of the elasticity of gases, and published several papers on the subject (see Royal Society Catalogue), extending over a period of some ten years from 1872. Another subject to which Mendeleeff gave a good deal of attention was the nature and origin of petroleum. Having already reported in 1866 on the naphtha springs in the Caucasus, in the summer of 1876 he crossed the Atlantic and surveyed the oil fields of Pennsylvania. In the course of these investigations, he was led to form a new theory of the mode of production of these natural deposits. The assumption that the oil is a product of the decomposition of organic remains he rejects on a variety of grounds, which are set forth in a communication to the Russian Chemical Society (Abstract, see Ber., 1877, x., 229). Mendeleeff assumes, as others have done, that the interior of the earth consists largely of carbides of metals, especially iron, and that hydrocarbons result from the penetration of water into contact with these compounds, metallic oxide being formed simultaneously. The hydrocarbons are supposed to be driven in vapor from the lower strata, where temperature is high, to more superficial strata, where they condense and are retained under pressure. In 1886, in consequence of rumors as to the possible exhaustion of the Russian oil fields, he was sent by the government to Baku to collect information, and in 1889 he made a communication on this subject to Dr. Ludwig Mond, which is printed in the Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry (1889, viii., 753). The influence of the great generalization known as the periodic law can best be estimated by reviewing the state of knowledge and opinion before the announcement and acceptance of the principle by the chemical world, and subsequently glancing at the influence which, directly or indirectly, it has produced on scientific thought, not only in regard to the great problems to which it immediately relates, but to the whole range of chemical theory. The use of the expression “atomic weight” implies the adoption of some form of atomic theory; but forty, or more years ago Dalton's atomic theory was by many of the most philosophical chemists and physicists regarded as only a convenient hypothesis, which might be temporarily useful, but could not be accepted as representing physical reality. Since that time, however, a variety of circumstances have contributed to consolidate the Daltonian doctrine. The estimation of the ratios called atomic weights has been the subject of research, attended by more and more elaborate precautions to secure accuracy, from the time of Dalton himself onward through successive generations down to the present day. Though the atomic weights of the majority of the eommon elements are now known to a high degree of accuracy, the acknowledged errors have been sufficiently great to render abortive various attempts to reduce them to any common scheme of mathematical relationship. As is well known, the most important step toward the systematization of atomic weights was taken about 1860, mainly on the grounds eloquently and convincingly set forth by Cannizzaro,* in consequence of which the arbitrary selection of numbers for atomic weights was superseded by the * 1858, and later, Faraday Lecture, 1872. practical recognition of the law of Avogadro and the application of the law of Dulong and Petit, so that a common standard was established. No general scheme of atomic weights was previously possible, partial and imperfect efforts in this direction being represented by Dcebereiner's triads and the principle of homology made use of by Dumas. Only so soon as numbers representing the atomic weights of calcium, barium, lead, and other metals were corrected and brought into the same category as those of oxygen, sulphur, and carbon was there some chance of determining whether these numbers possessed a common factor or were capable of exhibiting mathematical inter-relations which might be regarded as symbolic of physical relations or even directly dependent upon them. The first step in this direction was taken by J. A. R. Newlands, who, after some preliminary attempts in 1864-5, discovered that when the elements are placed in the order of the numerical value of their atomic weights, corrected as advised by Cannizzaro, the eighth element starting from any point on the list exhibits a revival of the characteristics of the first. This undoubtedly represents the first recognition of the principle of periodicity in the series of atomic weights, but whether dis-»couraged by the cool reception of his “law of octaves” by the chemical world or from imperfect apprehension of the importance of this discovery, Newlands failed to follow up the inquiry. It was not long, however, before the matter was taken up by others, and doubtless the improvements in the estimation of atomic weights, following on the work of Stas, then only recently published, inspired greater confidence in the approximate accuracy of the numbers adopted as atomic weights, and thus encouraged inquiry into their relations. The subject is, indeed, an attractive one, for it involves considerations which lie at the foundations of all our notions respecting the physical constitution of matter, and accordingly we find papers by many chemists dealing with the question of these numerical relations. Odling especially seems to have given much thought to the subject, and, ignoring Newland's previous attempts, he drew up toward the end of 1864* a table containing all the at that time well-known elements, arranged horizontally in the order of their generally accepted groups, and perpendicularly in the order of their several atomic weights. He concludes an article in Watts's Dictionary a few months later with these words: “Doubtless some of the arithmetical relations exemplified in the foregoing table are merely accidental, but, taken altogetner, they are too numerous and decided not to depend on some hitherto unrecognized law.” It is important to note the words I have italicized. Such, then, was the state of knowledge about this time. Evidently the way was being prepared, but the prophet had not made his appearance—the seer who could look with the eyes of confidence beyond the clouds of uncertainty which obscured all ordinary vision. (To be concluded.) * Quart. J. Sci., 1804, i, 044; and Watts's Dictionary, vol. iii, 075.

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