Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev

The Russian chemist Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev (1834-1907) is best known for the formulation of the periodic law of the chemical elements.

Dmitrii Mendeleev was born on Feb. 8, 1834, in the Siberian town of Tobolsk. He was the seventeenth and last child of Ivan Pavlovich and Maria Dmitrievna Mendeleev. At the age of 7 Dmitrii entered the gymnasium in Tobolsk and completed his studies in 1849. He displayed brilliant intellectual ability, a sharp memory, and a fascination for mathematics, physics, and geography. The following year he enrolled in the division of mathematical and natural sciences of the Main Pedagogical Institute of St. Petersburg, his father's alma mater.

Chemistry in Russia

The universities of Kazan and St. Petersburg were the principal centers of chemical activities in Russia during the first half of the 19th century. Mendeleev worked under Aleksandr A. Voskresenskii, whom the Russians call the grandfather of Russian chemistry. Mendeleev's first scientific paper was "The Analysis of Finnish Allanite and Pyroxene," and his diploma thesis was On Isomorphism in Connection with Other Relations between Crystalline Forms and Chemical Compositions (published in 1856 in Gorny zhurnal). His studies of the phenomenon of isomorphism led him to observe the similarity of the crystalline structures of related elements, which aided him in constructing the periodic table. When he graduated in 1855, he won the gold medal for being first in his class.

Mendeleev returned to the University of St. Petersburg in May 1856 to defend his thesis, On Specific Volumes. The degrees of master of physics and of chemistry were conferred on Mendeleev, and soon thereafter he presented a second thesis, The Structure of Siliceous Combinations. This resulted in his being appointed dozent, enabling him to teach theoretical and organic chemistry at the University of St. Petersburg. Toward the end of the 1850s Mendeleev reluctantly came to the conclusion that he would have to study abroad if he desired a professional chair because the research facilities at his university were inadequate.

Mendeleev Abroad

After a brief stay at the Sorbonne, Mendeleev journeyed to Heidelberg University, where he organized his own laboratory. He concentrated on the problem of molecular cohesion as displayed in the phenomena of capillarity and surface tension. The results of his experiments were published in three papers: "The Capillary Properties of Liquids," "The Expansion of Liquids," and "The Temperature of the Absolute Boiling Points of the Same Liquids." The significant conclusion reached by Mendeleev was that the molecular cohesion of a liquid in a capillary tube disappears at a specific temperature and that no gas can be liquefied above its unique "absolute temperature," commonly designated as the "critical temperature." During his stay in Heidelberg he designed the Mendeleev pyknometer for determining the specific gravity of liquids.

In 1860 Mendeleev and several other Russian chemists participated in the work of the First International Congress of Chemistry at Karlsruhe. Its purpose was, according to Mendeleev's letter dated Sept. 7, 1860, "to clarify and, if possible, agree on the basic differences which exist between the followers of different chemical schools."

Periodic Law

In 1861 Mendeleev resumed teaching chemistry at the University of St. Petersburg, the College of Engineering, and the Transport Institute. That year he wrote Organic Chemistry, Russia's first university manual on the subject. Two years later Mendeleev contracted an unhappy marriage with Feozva Nikitichna Leshcheva which lasted until 1876, when he met the young art student Anna Ivanovna Popov, whom he married illegally. When the charge of bigamy was raised against Mendeleev, Czar Alexander responded, "Mendeleev has two wives, yes, but I have only one Mendeleev."

Mendeleev accepted in 1864 the chair of technology (industrial chemistry) at the Technological Institute of St. Petersburg; received his doctorate in chemistry in 1865; filled in 1867 the chair of inorganic chemistry at the University of St. Petersburg, which he retained for the next 23 years; and helped found in 1868 the Russian Chemical Society.

It is difficult to determine precisely when Mendeleev first hit upon the periodic table. The problem of inaccurate atomic weights was solved by Stanislao Cannizzaro. Attempts to organize the chemical elements by increasing atomic weights had already been made by Alexandre Émile Béguyer de Chancourtois and by John Alexander Reina Newlands. It is known that Mendeleev also was impressed with certain regularities of the chemical properties of elements when preparing, in 1868, his highly successful text Principles of Chemistry. On March 18, 1869, Mendeleev's paper "An Outline of the System of the Elements, Based on Their Atomic Weights and Chemical Similarities," which contained the periodic table, was presented at the Russian Chemical Society and was subsequently published in Russian and German. In his table Mendeleev left six gaps for the yet-undiscovered elements having the atomic weights of 8, 22, 45, 68, 70, and 180.

Mendeleev had confidence in the existence of the law of periodicity of elements. He devoted considerable effort to predicting the chemical and physical properties of three elements vacant in the table. He named these hypothetical elements eka-boron, eka-aluminum, and eka-silicon (in Sanskrit the prefix eka means one). He was able to derive their valences and atomic weights and the formulas of compounds they are likely to form. Mendeleev's table hardly attracted attention until his predictions were fulfilled by the discoveries of gallium (1874), scandium (1879), and germanium (1885). The major drawbacks of his table were that it had difficulty in accommodating the rare-earth group and that no provision was made for the chemically inert elements, helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon.

In recognition for his formulation of the periodic law and the systematization of organic chemistry by means of his periodic table, academicians proposed Mendeleev's candidacy to the vacant chair of chemical technology of the Imperial Academy of Sciences. On Nov. 11, 1880, a shocked academic world learned of the rejection of Mendeleev's candidacy. Contributing to his defeat were Court Tolstoy, the minister of public education and later president of the Imperial Academy, who sought to limit the teaching of science in Russian schools and found Mendeleev a formidable opponent, and the members of the "German party" at the academy, who attempted to discourage native Russian scientists from becoming academicians. In expressing displeasure with the academy's rejection of Mendeleev and recognizing his achievements, five Russian universities elected Mendeleev as an honorary member, Cambridge and Oxford designated him an honored scholar, and numerous academies and societies elected him member. Few Russians since have been able to match Mendeleev's worldwide recognition.

Technical Activities

Mendeleev also showed a great interest in technology. In 1863 he was immersed in the problems of the Baku petroleum industry. He suggested a pipeline should be built to carry the oil from Baku to the Black Sea. He noted that the system of leasing oil-rich government-owned lands for a 4-year period tended to prevent large-scale investments in needed equipment to modernize operations, and he fought the government tax on petroleum products. In 1876 Mendeleev visited the Pennsylvania oil fields, brought back some technical ideas, and presented an unflattering view of America in his book The Oil Industry in the North American State of Pennsylvania and the Caucasus. He developed a theory that petroleum originated from the action of water on metallic carbides inside the earth.

In 1886 Mendeleev turned his attention to agricultural productivity, earning him the reputation of being the founder of Russian agrochemistry. At the request of the Ministry of State Property, Mendeleev examined in 1888 the possibilities of organizing a coal-mining industry in the Donets Basin (Donbas). And in 1899, despite age and infirmity, he traveled to the Urals to investigate the stagnation of the iron industry. In his The Urals Iron Industry in 1899 he concluded the problem lay with the monopolistic practices of the owners.

While looking into the properties of rarefied gases under varying pressures, Mendeleev designed a differential barometer that could determine precisely the height above sea level. He became fascinated with the problem of studying the upper strata of the atmosphere, and he even went so far as to plan a hermetically sealed gondola that could carry a human observer or automatic recording equipment. On Aug. 7, 1887, Mendeleev had the opportunity to make an ascent in a government balloon for the purpose of observing a solar eclipse. Inasmuch as the balloon lacked the power to lift Mendeleev and his experienced balloonist, Mendeleev bodily ejected the balloonist and carried out a solo flight, rising to an altitude of 11,000 feet and landing two hours later after covering 150 miles. Just before his death, Mendeleev was contemplating a journey to the North Pole by balloon.

In 1890 Mendeleev resigned from the University of St. Petersburg. Soon thereafter he worked for the Admiralty and Ministry of War. In 1892 he was appointed treasurer of the Chamber of Standard Weights and Measures, later becoming its chief. In 1899 he introduced the metric system into Russia.

Philosophy and Outlook

Mendeleev saw in science a valuable tool for remaking and modernizing Russia. He saw Russia gaining respectability in the community of nations through scientific activity benefiting mankind. And he saw in science the essential ingredient of the educated mind. However, he rejected science as a panacea for society's ills, believing that science must be complemented by religious and artistic sources of knowledge.

During his last years, Mendeleev defended his atomistic view of matter to the point of denouncing the modern ideas of physics of the divisibility of the atom and the transmutability of the chemical elements. One of these transmuted elements, the 101st in the periodic table, is named mendelevium. Mendeleev died on Jan. 20, 1907.

Further Reading on Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev

Although not a definitive study, Daniel Q. Posin, Mendeleyev: The Story of a Great Scientist (1948), is valuable for its broad treatment of Mendeleev's life and for its bibliography of his publications. There are many biographical sketches, but the one by Henry Leicester in Eduard Farber, ed., Great Chemists (1961), is most accurate and is based on Russian sources. A translation of a brief Russian study of Mendeleev is O. N. Pisarzhevsky, Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev: His Life and Work (1954). The 19th-century history of the periodic table is described in great detail by Francis P. Venable in The Development of the Periodic Law (1896), and by A. E. Garrett in The Periodic Law (1909).

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