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Primer: Dmitrii Mendeleev November 5, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Today’s Hump-Day History post has been guest written by Michael Gordin of Princeton University, author of A Well-Ordered Thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table, and Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear WarIn presenting “The Multiple Biographies of D. I. Mendeleev”, Michael has taken the opportunity to explore whether or not we can biographically encapsulate an individual.

Is it possible to write a blog post on the biography of Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev (1834-1907)?  This is not just an issue of whether one can shrink the life of any human being, let alone someone with a long life and a string of significant achievements, to under 2,000 words.  Even on a broader scale (say 100,000 words), could one really do it?  This might seem like a non-serious point, since I have in fact published a book in 2004 on this very same Russian chemist, the man most often credited with the formulation of the periodic system of chemical.  The point, however, is serious:  can one simply write a biography?  Can you break down a person into one single narrative, one which builds up a picture of a story with no axe to grind, no preconceptions, no grand story?  Well, you might think you can, but that only means you aren’t paying attention.  Let me illustrate this with four possible “biographies” of Mendeleev, each based on documented facts from his life, and each with rather different plotlines.

The first biography focuses on the periodic table.  The story begins in September 1860, at a congress of chemists gathered in Karlsruhe to discuss the fundamental issues of chemistry.  Before the speech of Italian chemist Stanislao Cannizzaro (1826-1910) at that Congress, there were several different systems for correlating atomic weights, with hydrogen typically set equal to 1.  Depending on how you measured, and what you considered the chemically “relevant” part of an element in a chemical reaction, you could have carbon equal to 6 or 12, oxygen to 8 or 16, and even elements that had only one atomic weight assigned to them might have some uncertainty about them (for example, uranium was generally believed to weigh 120 hydrogen units; we now think it is closer to double that).  Mendeleev, then a postdoctoral student at Heidelberg University, attended the Congress, and he always claimed that Cannizzaro’s speech about standardizing atomic weights left a deep impression on him.  Shortly after the Congress, atomic weight tables began to increasingly adhere to Cannizzaro’s proposals, and by the end of the decade, there were at least five competing periodic systems of chemical elements.  All of them used the new atomic weights.

Mendeleev’s own periodic system was developed in a distinctly pedagogical context.  He returned from Heidelberg to St. Petersburg in February 1861, and began to scramble for any means to earn a living as a chemist.  He took basically three approaches to this goal:  consulting for industry, teaching at educational institutions, and writing textbooks.  His first textbook, Organic Chemistry, was published in Russian in 1861, to local acclaim (he won the 1862 Demidov Prize from the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences for it), but it was soon eclipsed by innovations in the science.  He relied more on his job search, and in 1867 he became professor of general chemistry at St. Petersburg University, which meant he had to teach the very large introductory chemistry class.  (Part of the reason the class was so large was that enrollment both overall and in the natural sciences faculty in particular ballooned in the 1860s following a series of liberalizing “Great Reforms” promulgated by Tsar Alexander II.)  He had to assign a textbook, and his options were either to translate a current text from English, French, or German (which would have been difficult to do and more likely to be obsolete before he was done) or write one in Russian on his own.  He decided on the latter course.

The final result, The Principles of Chemistry (Основы химии) appeared in two volumes, the first in 1869, and the second in 1871.  The first volume covered hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and four halogens (fluorine, chlorine, bromine, and iodine).  Eight elements, leaving fully 56 of 63 elements then known to the following volume.  He realized early in 1869, after sending volume 1 to the press, that he needed a better organizational system.  His first periodic system was a solution to this dilemma.  By organizing the elements into families, he managed to treat the rest of the elements in a coherent and rational manner within the span of a single volume.

The first biography just takes off from there.  By 1871, Mendeleev had predicted three elements that were yet undiscovered but which ought to exist to fill the gaps in his system.  In 1875 gallium (Mendeleev’s eka-aluminum), in 1879 scandium (eka-boron), and in 1886 germanium (eka-silicon) were discovered.  By 1882 Mendeleev had shared the Davy Medal of the Royal Society of London with Lothar Meyer for the system, and by the end of the century it was a staple of chemical pedagogy and research — as it has remained ever since.  The first biography, thus, is a story that starts low and rises.

The second biography focuses on Mendeleev and the discipline of chemistry in the late nineteenth century.  Chemistry starts out triumphant.  It achieved coherence in Karlsruhe as the most professional, most organized, most innovative science in Europe (and thus, for people at the time, the world).  The 1860s saw coherent systemizations of both organic chemistry (August Kekulé’s structure theory) and inorganic chemistry (the periodic system).  Everything seemed good.  And then physics got in the way.  With the discovery of radioactivity in 1896 and the electron in 1897, both of those achievements of chemistry were subsumed into physics by being explained as a consequence of the interaction of subatomic particles.

In this biography, Mendeleev becomes increasingly angry and grumpy.  He refused to acknowledge any substructure to atoms, and he resisted both radioactivity and the electron as spurious discoveries, better explained through the interactions of matter with the luminiferous ether (which he also thought he could locate on the periodic system, as the lightest noble gas).  Chemistry came to be displaced as the most fundamental science by physics, and Mendeleev remained resolutely a chemist.  He died on the cusp of his own great discovery being subsumed by another science.  This second biography starts high and declines into disappointment.

The third biography focuses on Mendeleev as a civil servant of the Russian Empire.  As a professor at Petersburg University, Mendeleev was a servitor of the Tsars ex officio, and a willing one.  From 1863 — when he began consulting with private industry on the exploitation of the Baku oil fields — until his death, Mendeleev worked with the Ministry of Finances, the Ministry of Education, and many other state and non-state organizations on the development of Russia into a modern, capitalist economy.  In particular, he was an ardent defender of protectionism as a way to shield fledgling heavy industry within Russia from foreign competition in the early years of its development.  A biography centered on Mendeleev as civil servant would track his activities in all of these domains, culminating in his crucial work in composing and then defending the highly protectionist tariff of 1891.

At that moment, Mendeleev was at the peak of his influence in the Ministry of Finances, and his star rose with that of Sergei Witte, the leading architect of Russian industrialization in the last decades of the nineteenth century.  Even after he retired from St. Petersburg University (amid some controversy) in 1890, he worked for the Navy developing smokeless gunpowder, and from 1893 to his death was the director of the Chief Bureau of Weights and Measures, charged with standardizing the Russian Empire toward the metric system.  The goal had always been to stabilize the autocracy through the turbulent transition to capitalism.  The dashing of his hopes for unfettered monarchy with the 1905 Revolution — which instituted the first parliament (Duma) in Russian history — left Mendeleev angry and embittered, especially with his (former) friend Witte’s advocacy of this very move.  This biography starts low, rises high, and then crashes at the very end.

The fourth biography focuses on Mendeleev as a private individual with his own troubles.  Mendeleev’s career started auspiciously — the Demidov Prize, the position at Petersburg University, the consulting contracts — but then began to slip in the 1870s.  He personally felt frustrated with his new research project, which sought to investigate the behavior of gases under very low pressures in order to attempt to detect the ether, and he was irritated by the popularity of spiritualist séances in the capital.  He spent much of the 1870s prosecuting both the failing gas project and the uppity Spiritualists, and collapsed exhausted at the end of the decade with the ultimate insult:  his rejection (by one vote) from membership in the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, the pinnacle of the scientific structure of Imperial Russia.  (He never did become a member.)  He spent the early 1880s in a tumult of distraction:  he got divorced and remarried (but not exactly in that order); he abandoned gas work for table-top experiments on solutions; and he nursed his wounds.  He emerged in the late 1880s as a heroic figure again, a titan in the popular imagination of what it meant to be a scientist, but the trials of the late 1870s always left their mark on him.  This biography starts high, collapses, and then rises like a phoenix from the ashes.

Which of these is the true biography?  Well, of course, none is.  But we might as well say each one is, because there is no Great White Whale out there of the True Biography that is to be hunted.  To pick another cultural metaphor, there is no spoon.

That doesn’t mean that Mendeleev didn’t exist or that all of the facts of his life are just out there for us to pick and choose.  It does mean that we need to recognize that whenever we try to make sense of the past — which is what history is about, after all — we are fundamentally telling stories that emphasize certain features of the documentary flotsam that emerges in archives.  We are also deemphasizing others.

It’s pretty likely that Mendeleev would have been irritated by the fact that he won’t have a single biography written of him.  He could, on the other hand, be encouraged by the fact that we can write many.  As many stories as there are people willing to write them.



1. Bits and pieces « Evolving Thoughts - May 24, 2009

[…] Wave has a nice guest article by Michael Gordin on the biographies of Mendeleev. I count him as the founder of etiological […]

2. Eric Robert Scerri - June 10, 2011

Thanks for an interesting perspective Michael. I think you did an excellent job of blending your four versions in your book on Mendeleev. I suppose we all have good and bad periods and it’s not essential for a biographer to commit themselves on a clear trajectory in the life of the person they are depicting. Not that I have ever undertaken the writing of a biography.

all the best,

Eric Scerri, The Periodic Table, Its Story and Its Significance, Oxford University Press, 2007. http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Chemistry/?view=usa&ci=9780195305739

UCLA faculty website: http://faculty.chemistry.ucla.edu/institution/personnel?personnel_id=294334

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