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Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907)

Dmitri Mendeleev  (1834-1907)Born in Siberia, the last of at least 14 children, Dmitri Mendeleev revolutionized our understanding of the properties of atoms and created a table that probably adorns every chemistry classroom in the world. After his father went blind and could no longer support the family, Mendeleev’s mother started a glass factory to help make ends meet. But just as Mendeleev was finishing high school, his father died and the glass factory burned down. With most of her other children now out on their own, his mother took her son to St. Petersburg, working tirelessly and successfully to get him into college.

In the late 1860's, Mendeleev began working on his great achievement: the periodic table of the elements. By arranging all of the 63 elements then known by their atomic weights, he managed to organize them into groups possessing similar properties. Where a gap existed in the table, he predicted a new element would one day be found and deduced its properties. And he was right. Three of those elements were found during his lifetime: gallium, scandium, and germanium.

The discovery of these elements provided the strongest support for his periodic table, a cornerstone both in chemistry and in our understanding of how the universe is put together (reference). In 1849, with nothing left for the family at Aremziansk, Maria loaded up the family's belongings and headed for Moscow. At this point the family included Maria, Dmitri, and Elizabeth (Dmitri's older sister). In Moscow, they entered a climate of considerable political unrest, which made the university reluctant to admit anyone from outside of Moscow. Mendeleev was rejected. Maria did not give up, however, and the family headed for St. Petersburg.

Again, they encountered similar turmoil but this time they found a friend of Ivan's working at the Pedagogical Institute, his father's school. With a little persuasion, Dmitri was allowed to take the entrance exams, which he passed, not with honors but well enough to be admitted to the science teacher training program on a full scholarship. He entered the university in the fall of 1850. Maria died shortly after Dmitri's acceptance at St. Petersburg, followed a few short months later by Elizabeth; both died from tuberculosis. Mendeleev was left alone to face his work at the university, but was to later eulogize his mother in his book on Solutions.

"This investigation is dedicated to the memory of a mother by her youngest offspring. Conducting a factory she could educate him only by her own work. She instructed by example, corrected with love, and in order to devote him to science she left Siberia with him, spending thus her last resources and strength."

"When dying she said, 'Refrain from illusions, insist on work and not on words. Patiently search divine and scientific truth.' She understood how often dialectical methods deceive, how much there is still to be learned, and how, with the aid of science without violence, with love but firmness, all superstition, untruth and error are removed, bringing in their stead the safety of undiscovered truth, freedom for further development, general welfare, and inward happiness. Dmitri Mendeleev regards as sacred a mother's dying words."

Dmitri fell right into his work at St. Petersburg. His studies progressed rapidly until his third year. At that point he was struck with an illness that caused him to be bedridden for the next year. He continued his studies, however, with professors and fellow students visiting him to give him assignments, etc. Mendeleev graduated on time and was awarded the medal of excellence for being first in his class.

See also: Development of the Periodic Table, de Chancourtois, Dobereiner, Mendeleev, Moseley, Newlands, Seaborg

Dmitri's illness did not improve. His doctor suggested that he had tuberculosis and that, at most, he had two years to live providing he moved to a more suitable climate. Mendeleev already had his life's ambitions in mind and, hoping to extend his life as long as possible, he moved to Simferopol in the Crimean Peninsula near the Black Sea in 1855 as chief science master of the gymnasium. He was 21 years old. At this point in his life he was driven by "the vision of the Russian people whom he knew he could aid through science." Needless to say, his move to the south was very beneficial. He progressively regained his strength to the point where the doctors found no sign of tuberculosis in his system.

Mendeleev Table of toxic Elements

Mendeleev's Opinion on Global warming

In 1856, Mendeleev returned to St. Petersburg and defended his master's thesis: "Research and Theories on Expansion of Substances due to Heat." Following his masters program, Dmitri focused his life on his career of teaching and research. He was essentially a teacher devoted to his work and to his students; he was next a lover of his country and of his fellow men. The first led to his books and the periodic table, while the latter gave rise to his studies of chemical technology and the organization of Russia's industries, agriculture, transport meteorology and metrology.

In 1859, he was assigned by the Minister of Public Instruction to go abroad to study and develop scientific and technological innovations. Between 1859 and 1861 he studied the densities of gases with Regnault in Paris and the workings of the spectroscope with Kirchoff in Heidelberg. He also pursued studies of capillarity and surface tension that led to his theory of "absolute boiling point," later known as critical temperature. While in Heidelberg he made the acquaintance of A.P. Borodin, a chemist who was to achieve greater reknown as a composer. In 1860 at the Chemical Congress at Karlsruhe, Mendeleev had the opportunity to hear Cannizzaro discuss his work on atomic weights. These people greatly influenced the work which Mendeleev would pursue the rest of his life.

Following his trip abroad, the Russian chemist returned to his homeland where he settled down to a life of teaching and research in St. Petersburg. In 1863 he was named Professor of Chemistry at the Technological Institute and, in 1866, he became Professor of Chemistry at the University and was made Doctor of Science for his dissertation "On the Combinations of Water with Alcohol". As will be seen, his research findings were expansive and beneficial to the Russian people. Dmitri was always in touch with the classroom. Much of his lab work, including that on the periodic chart, occurred in his spare time following his lectures. He truly enjoyed educating the people, and they, in turned enjoyed his efforts: ...For me it was a revelation, a beautiful improvisation, a stimulant to the intellect which left deep traces on my development.

Mendeleev not only taught in the university classrooms but anywhere he travelled. Many excerpts discuss his journeys by train where he would travel third class with the mouzhiks (peasants). It was on those journeys that he would share his findings about agriculture with the peasants over a cup of tea. The admiration that Mendeleev had for the people of Russia was reciprocated by the people. On the trains the mouzhiks would all gather round to see and talk with the man. The university students also adored him. Crowds of students would fill lecture halls to hear him speak of chemistry.

For Mendeleev, science was always the most important subject, but in that time period of unrest, just as today, science could be expanded to the realms of politics and social inequality. Mendeleev was not afraid to express his views on these topics:

There exists everywhere a medium in things, determined by equilibrium. The Russian proverb says, 'Too much salt or too little salt is alike an evil.' It is the same in political and social relations... It is the function of science to discover the existence of a general reign of order in nature and to find the causes governing this order. And this refers in equal measure to the relations of man, social and political, and to the entire universe as a whole.

These profound thoughts of order led him to the discovery of the periodic law, among other things, but also led to his resignation from the University on August 17, 1890. Throughout his life he witnessed a country repressed and in turmoil. As he grew older and more famous, he used his new-found prestige and power to try to speak out against repression. The most all penetrating spirit before which will open the possibility of tilting not tables, but planets, is the spirit of free human inquiry. Believe only in that. His resignation from the university came as the result of carrying a student petition to the Minister of Education. The Minister refused to acknowledge the requests, stating that Mendeleev should keep to teaching and not involve himself with students and politics. Mendeleev's final lecture at the University of St. Petersburg was broken up by police who feared that he might lead the students in an uprising.

Dmitri's personal life also appears to have been in turmoil for many years. In 1863, with the heavy influence of his sister Olga, Dmitri married Feozva Nikitchna Lascheva. They had two children, a boy named Volodya, and a daughter named Olga. Mendeleev never really loved Feozva and actually spent little time with her. One story suggests that, at one point in their life together, Feozva asked Mendeleev if he was married to her or to science; his response was that he was married to both unless that was bigamy, in which case he was married to science.

In January 1882, he divorced Feozva so he could marry his niece's best friend, Anna Ivanova Popova. According to the Orthodox Church, Mendeleev was officially a bigamist; however, he was so famous in Russia that the Czar said "Mendeleev has two wives, yes, but I have only one Mendeleev". Anna was considerably younger than Dmitri but the two loved each other very much and were together until his death. They had four children: Liubov, Ivan, and twins Vassili and Maria. Anna also had considerable influence over Mendeleev's views on art, and he was elected to the Academy of Arts for both his insightful criticism and his painting.

As he grew older it also became apparent that personal appearance became less and less significant to him. Many stories abound relating to the idea that in his later years, Dmitri would only cut his hair and beard once a year. He would not even cut it by request of the tsar. One observer stated, "Every hair acted separate from the others." It becomes apparent that, in most respects, work came first for Dmitri Mendeleev.

From his first publication in 1854 entitled "Chemical Analysis of a Sample from Finland" to his final works in 1906 such as "A Project for a School for Teachers" and "Toward Knowledge of Russia", Mendeleev's transcripts revealing his research findings and beliefs number well over 250. His most famous publications include Organic Chemistry, which was published in 1861 when he was 27 years old. This book won the Domidov Prize and put Mendeleev on the forefront of Russian chemical education. The first edition of Principles of Chemistry was printed in 1868. Both of these books are classroom texts. Again, Mendeleev never lost sight of the importance of education.

Besides his work on general chemical concepts as discussed earlier, Mendeleev spent much of his time working to improve technological advances of Russia. Many of his research findings dealt with agricultural chemistry, oil refining, and mineral recovery. Dmitri was also one of the founding members of the Russian Chemical Society in 1868, and helped open the lines of communication between scientists in Europe and the United States.

Mendeleev also pursued studies on the properties and behavior of gases at high and low pressures, which led to his development of a very accurate differential barometer and further studies in meteorology. He also became interested in balloons, which led to a rather perilous adventure in 1887. In order to observe the solar eclipse above Klin, he made a solo ascent, without any prior experience; while his family was rather concerned, he paid no attention to controlling the balloon until after he had completed his observations, at which time he figured out how to land his conveyance.

His greatest accomplishment, however, was the stating of the Periodic Law and the development of the Periodic Table. From early in his career, he felt that there was some type of order to the elements, and he spent more than thirteen years of his life collecting data and assembling the concept, initially with the idea of resolving some of the chaos in the field for his students. Mendeleev was one of the first modern-day scientists in that he did not rely solely on his own work but rather was in correspondence with scientists around the world in order to receive data that they had collected. He then used used their data along with his own data to arrange the elements according to their properties.

No law of nature, however general , has been established all at once; its recognition has always been preceded by many presentiments. The establishment of a law, moreover, does not take place when the first thought of it takes form, or even when its significance is recognized, but only when it has been confirmed by the results of the experiment. The man of science must consider these results as the only proof of the correctness of his conjectures and opinions.

In 1866, Newlands published a relationship of the elements entitled the "Law of Octaves". Mendeleev's ideas were similar to those of Newlands but Dmitri had more data and felt that Newlands had not gone far enough in his research. By 1869, the Russian chemist had assembled detailed descriptions of more than 60 elements and, on March 6, 1869 a formal presentation was made to the Russian Chemical Society entitled "The Dependence Between the Properties of the Atomic Weights of the Elements." Unfortunately, Mendeleev was ill and the presentation was given by his colleague Professor Menshutken. There were eight points to his presentation:

On November 29, 1870, Mendeleev took his concept even further by stating that it was possible to predict the properties of undiscovered elements. He then proceeded to make predictions for three new elements (eka-aluminum, eka-boron and eka-silicon) and suggested several properties of each, including density, radii, and combining ratios with oxygen, among others. The science world was perplexed, and many scoffed at Mendeleev's predictions. It was not until November, 1875, when the Frenchman Lecoq de Boisbaudran discovered one of the predicted elements (eka-aluminum) which he named Gallium, that Dmitri's ideas were taken seriously. The other two elements were discovered later and their properties were found to be remarkably similar to those predicted by Mendeleev. These discoveries, verifying his predictions and substantiating his law, took him to the top of the science world. He was 35 years old when the initial paper was presented.

Throughout the remainder of his life, Dmitri Mendeleev received numerous awards from various organizations including the Davy Medal from the Royal Society of England in 1882, the Copley Medal, the Society's highest award, in 1905, and honorary degrees from universities around the world. Following his resignation from the University of St. Petersburg, the Russian government in 1893 appointed him Director of the Bureau of Weights and Measures. This was believed to have been done to keep down public disapproval of the government. Mendeleev continued to be a popular social figure until his death. (reference)

Mendeleev rewrote each edition of Principles of Chemistry, including all new scientific data-particularly confirmations of the periodic law-and reanalyzing difficulties that had arisen to hinder its confirmation (inert gases, radioactivity, radioactive and rare-earth elements)"