Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/March 1892/Justus von Liebig

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JUSTUS VON LIEBIG:

AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.[1]

MY father, who had a color warehouse, frequently occupied himself in making some of the colors in which he dealt, and for that purpose had fitted up for himself a small laboratory to which I had access, and where I sometimes enjoyed the privilege of helping him. He made his experiments as prescribed in works upon chemistry, which were, with great liberality, lent to the inhabitants of Darmstadt from the rich Court Library.

The lively interest which I took in my father's labors naturally led me to read the books which guided him in his experiments, and such a passion for these books was gradually developed in me that I became indifferent to every other thing that ordinarily attracts children. Since I did not fail to fetch the books from the Court Library myself, I became acquainted with the librarian Hess, who occupied himself successfully with botany, and as he took a fancy to the little fellow, I got, through him, all the books I could desire for my own use. Of course, the reading of books went on without any system. I read the books just as they stood upon the shelves, whether from below upward or from right to left was all the same to me; my fourteen-year-old head was like an ostrich stomach for their contents, and among them I found side by side upon the shelves the thirty-two volumes of Macquer's Chemical Dictionary, Basil Valentine's Triumphal Car of Antimony, Stahl's Phlogistic Chemistry — thousands of essays and treatises in Göttling's and Gehlen's periodicals, the works of Kirwan, Cavendish, etc.

I am quite sure that this manner of reading was of no particular use so far as acquisition of exact knowledge is concerned, but it developed in me the faculty, which is peculiar to chemists more than to other natural philosophers, of thinking in terms of phenomena; it is not very easy to give a clear idea of phenomena to any one who can not recall in his imagination a mental picture of what he sees and hears, like the poet and artist for example. Most closely akin is the peculiar power of the musician, who, while composing, thinks in tones which are as much connected by laws as the logically arranged conceptions in a conclusion or series of conclusions. There is in the chemist a form of thought by which all ideas become visible to the mind as the strains of an imagined piece of music. This form of thought is developed in Faraday in the highest degree, whence it arises that to one who is not acquainted with this method of thinking, his scientific works seem barren and dry, and merely a series of researches strung together, while his oral discourse, when he teaches or explains, is intellectual, elegant, and of wonderful clearness.

The faculty of thinking in phenomena can only be cultivated if the mind is constantly trained, and this was effected in my case by my endeavoring to perform, so far as my means would allow me, all the experiments whose description I read in the books. These means were very limited, and hence it arose that, in order to satisfy my inclination, I repeated such experiments as I was able to make a countless number of times, until I ceased to see anything new in the process, or till I knew thoroughly every aspect of the phenomenon which presented itself. The natural consequence of this was the development of a memory of the sense, that is to say of the sight, a clear perception of the resemblances or differences of things or of phenomena, which afterward stood me in good stead.

One will easily understand this if one imagines, for instance, a white or colored precipitate which is produced by mixing two liquids; it is formed either at once or after some time, it is cloudy or of a curdy or gelatinous character, sandy or crystalline, dull or bright, it deposits easily or slowly, etc.; or if it is colored it has a certain tint. Among the countless white precipitates each has something peculiar to itself; and when one has experience in this sort of appearances, whatever one sees during an investigation at once awakens the remembrance of what one has seen. The following example will make clear what I mean by sight or eye memory: During our joint research on uric acid, Wöhler one day sent me a crystalline body which he had obtained by the action of peroxide of lead upon this acid; I immediately thereupon wrote to him with great joy, and without having analyzed the body, that it was allantoin. Seven years before I had had this body in my hands; it had been sent to me by C. Gmelin for investigation, and I had published an analysis of it in Poggendorf's Annalen; since that time I had not seen it again. But when we had analyzed the substance obtained from uric acid there appeared a difference in the amount of carbon, the new body gave one and a half per cent carbon less, and since the nitrogen had been determined by the qualitative method a corresponding quantity (four per cent) of nitrogen more; consequently it could not possibly be allantoin. However, I trusted my eye-memory more than my analysis, and was quite sure that it was allantoin, and the thing now to be done was to find the remains of the substance previously analyzed in order to analyze it afresh. I could describe the little glass in which it was with such precision that my assistant at last succeeded in picking it out from among a couple of thousand other preparations. It looked exactly like our new body, except that examination under the lens showed that Gmelin, in the preparation of his allantoin, had purified it with animal charcoal, some of which having passed through the paper in the filtration had become mixed with the crystals.

Without the complete conviction which I had that the two bodies were identical, the allantoin produced artificially from uric acid would undoubtedly have been regarded as a new body, and would have been designated by a new name, and one of the most interesting relations of uric acid to one of the constituents of the urine of the foetus of the cow would perhaps have remained for a long time unobserved. In this manner it came to pass that everything I saw remained intentionally or unintentionally fixed in my memory with equal photographic fidelity. At a neighboring soap-boiler's I saw the process of boiling soap, and learned what “curd soap” and “fitting” are, and how white soap is made; and I had no little pleasure when I succeeded in showing a piece of soap of my own making, perfumed with oil of turpentine. In the workshop of the tanner and dyer, the smith and brass-founder, I was at home, and ready to do any hand's turn.

In the market at Darmstadt I watched how a peripatetic dealer in odds and ends made fulminating silver for his pea-crackers. I observed the red vapors which were formed when he dissolved his silver, and that he added to it nitric acid, and then a liquid which smelt of brandy, and with which he cleaned dirty coat-collars for the people. With this bent of mind it is easy to understand that my position at school was very deplorable; I had no ear-memory and retained nothing or very little of what is learned through this sense; I found myself in the most uncomfortable position in which a boy could possibly be; languages and everything that is acquired by their means, that gains praise and honor in the school, were out of my reach; and when the venerable rector of the gymnasium (Zimmermann), on one occasion of his examination of my class, came to me and made a most cutting remonstrance with me for my want of diligence, how I was the plague of my teachers and the sorrow of my parents, and what did I think was to become of me, and when I answered him that I would be a chemist, the whole school and the good old man himself broke into an uncontrollable fit of laughter, for no one at the time had any idea that chemistry was a thing that could be studied.

Since the ordinary career of a gymnasium student was not open to me, my father took me to an apothecary at Heppenheim in the Hessian Bergstrasse; but at the end of ten months he was so tired of me that he sent me home again to my father. I wished to be a chemist, but not a druggist. The ten months sufficed to make me completely acquainted alike with the use and the manifold applications of the thousand and one different things which are found in a druggist's shop.

Left to myself in this way, without advice and direction, I completed my sixteenth year, and my persistent importunity at last induced my father to give me permission to go to the University of Bonn; whence I followed to Erlangen the Professor of Chemistry, Kastner, who had been called to the Bavarian University. There arose at that time at the newly established University of Bonn an extraordinary quickening of scientific life; but the degenerate philosophical methods of investigation, as they had been embodied in Oken, and still worse in Wilbrand, had a most pernicious influence on the branches of natural science, for it had led alike in lecture and in study to a want of appreciation of experiment and of an unprejudiced observation of Nature, which was ruinous to many talented young men.

From the professional chair the pupil received an abundance of ingenious contemplations; but, bodiless as they were, nothing could be made of them. The lectures of Kastner, who was considered a most eminent chemist, were without order, illogical, and arranged just like the jumble of knowledge which I carried about in my head. The relations which he discovered between phenomena were somewhat after the following pattern:

“The influence of the moon upon the rain is clear, for as soon as the moon is visible the thunderstorm ceases,” or “the influence of the sun's rays on water is shown by the rise of the water in the shafts of mines, some of which can not be worked in the height of summer.” That we see the moon when the thunderstorm is dispelled, and that the water rises in the mine when the brooks which drive the pumps dry up in summer, was, of course, too blunt an explanation for a clever lecture.

It was then a very wretched time for chemistry in Germany. At most of the universities there was no special chair for chemistry; it was generally handed over to the professor of medicine, who taught it, as much as he knew of it, and that was little enough, along with the branches of toxicology, pharmacology, materia medica, practical medicine, and pharmacy. Many years after this in Giessen, descriptive and comparative anatomy, physiology, zoology, natural history, and botany were in one single hand.

While the labors of the great Swedish chemist, the English and French natural philosophers, Humphry Davy, Wollaston, Biot, Arago, Fresnel, Thenard, and Dulong, opened up entirely new spheres of investigation, all these inestimable acquisitions found no soil in Germany where they could bear fruit. Long years of war had undermined the well-being of the people, and external political pressure had brought in its train the desolation of our universities, filled men with painful anxiety for many years, and turned their desires and their strength in other directions. The national spirit had asserted its freedom and independence in ideal spheres, and by the destruction of belief in authority had brought rich blessings in many ways — for example, in medicine and philosophy; only in physiology it had broken through its natural limits, and wandered far beyond experience.

The goal of science and the fact that it has value only when it is useful to life had almost dropped out of sight, and men amused themselves in an ideal world which had no connection with the real one. It was considered an almost debasing sentiment, and one unworthy of an educated person, to believe that in the body of a living being the crude and vulgar inorganic forces played any part. Life and all its manifestations and conditions were perfectly clear. Natural phenomena were clothed in bewitchingly lovely dress, cut out and fitted by clever men, and this was called philosophical investigation. Experimental instruction in chemistry was all but extinct at the universities, and only the highly educated pharmacists, Klaproth, Hermbstadt, Valentin Rose, Trommsdorff, and Buchholz, had themselves preserved it, but in another department.

I remember, at a much later period, Prof. Wurzer, who held the chair of chemistry at Marburg, showing me a wooden table drawer, which had the property of producing quicksilver every three months. He possessed an apparatus which mainly consisted of a long clay pipe-stem, with which he converted oxygen into nitrogen by making the porous pipe-stem red hot in charcoal, and passing oxygen through it.

Chemical laboratories, in which instruction in chemical analysis was imparted, existed nowhere at that time. What passed by that name were more like kitchens filled with all sorts of furnaces and utensils for the carrying out of metallurgical or pharmaceutical processes. No one really understood how to teach it. I afterward followed Kastner to Erlangen, where he had promised to analyze some minerals with me; but unfortunately he did not himself know how to do it, and he never carried out a single analysis with me.

The benefit which I gained through intercourse with other students during my sojourn in Bonn and Erlangen was the discovery of my ignorance in very many subjects which they brought with them from school to the university, and since I got nothing to do in chemistry I laid out all my energies to make up for my previously neglected school studies. In Bonn and Erlangen small numbers of students joined with me in a chemico-physical union, in which every member in turn had to read a paper on the question of the day, which, of course, consisted merely in a report on the subjects of the essays which appeared monthly in Gilbert and Schweigger's Journal.

In Erlangen, Schelling's lectures attracted me for a time, but Schelling possessed no thorough knowledge in the province of natural science, and the dressing up of natural phenomena with analogies and in images, which was called exposition, did not suit me. I returned to Darmstadt fully persuaded that I could not attain my ends in Germany.

The dissertations of Berzelius — that is to say, the better translation of his handbook, which had a large circulation at that time — were as springs in the desert. Mitscherlich, H. Rose, Wöhler, and Magnus had then repaired to Berzelius, in Stockholm; but Paris offered me means of instruction in many other branches of natural science, as, for instance, physics, such as could be found united in no other place. I made up my mind to go to Paris. I was then seventeen and a half years old. My journey to Paris, the way and manner in which I came in contact with Thenard, Humboldt, Dulong, and with Gay-Lussac, and how the boy found favor in the sight of those men, borders on the fabulous, and would be out of place here. Since then it has frequently been my experience that marked talent awakens in all men, I believe I may say without exception, an irrepressible desire to bring about its development. Each helps in his own way, and all together as if they were acting in concert; but talent only compels success if it is united with a firm, indomitable will. External hindrances to its development are in most cases very much less than those which lie in men themselves; for just as no one of the forces of Nature, however mighty it may be, ever produces an effect by itself alone, but always only in conjunction with other forces; so a man can only make valuable that which he learns without trouble, or acquires readily, for which, as we say, he has a natural gift, if he learns many other things in addition, which perhaps cost him more trouble to acquire than other people.

Lessing says that talent really is will and work, and I am very much inclined to agree with him.

The lectures of Gay-Lussac, Thenard, Dulong, etc., in the Sorbonne, had for me an indescribable charm; the introduction of astronomical or mathematical method into chemistry, which changes every problem when possible into an equation, and assumes in every uniform sequence of two phenomena a quite certain connection of cause and effect, which, after it has been searched for and discovered, is called “explanation” or “theory,” had led the French chemists and physicists to their great discoveries. This kind of “theory” or “explanation” was as good as unknown in Germany, for by these expressions was understood not something “experienced,” but always something which man must add on and which he fabricates.

French exposition has, through the genius of the language, a logical clearness in the treatment of scientific subjects very difficult of attainment in other languages, whereby Thenard and Gay-Lussac acquired a mastery in experimental demonstration. The lecture consisted of a judiciously arranged succession of phenomena — that is to say, of experiments whose connection was completed by oral explanations. The experiments were a real delight to me, for they spoke to me in a language I understood, and they united with the lecture in giving definite connection to the mass of shapeless facts which lay mixed up in my head without order or arrangement. The antiphlogistic or French chemistry had, it is true, brought the history of chemistry before Lavoisier to the guillotine; but one observed that the knife only fell on the shadow, and I was much more familiar with the phlogistic writings of Cavendish, Watt, Priestley, Kirwan, Black, Scheele, and Bergmann, than with the antiphlogistic; and what was represented in the Paris lectures as new and original facts appeared to me to be in the closest relation to previous facts, so much so, indeed, that when the latter were imagined away the others could not be.

I recognized, or more correctly perhaps the consciousness dawned upon me, that a connection in accordance with fixed laws exists not only between two or three, but between all chemical phenomena in the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms; that no one stands alone, but each being always linked with another, and this again with another, and so on, all are connected with each other, and that the genesis and disappearance of things is an undulatory motion in an orbit.

What impressed me most in the French lectures was their intrinsic truth, and the careful avoidance of all pretense in the explanations; it was the most complete contrast to the German lectures, in which the whole scientific teaching had lost its solid construction through the preponderance of the deductive method.

An accidental occurrence drew A. von Humboldt's attention to me in Paris, and the interest which he took in me induced Gay-Lussac to complete, in conjunction with me, a piece of work which I had begun. In this manner I had the good fortune to enjoy the closest intercourse with the great natural philosopher; he worked with me as he had formerly worked with Thenard; and I can well say that the foundation of all my later work and of my whole course was laid in his laboratory in the arsenal.

I returned to Germany, where through the school of Berzelius, H. Rose, Mitscherlich, Magnus, and Wöhler, a great revolution in inorganic chemistry had already commenced. Through the support of von Humboldt's warm recommendation, an extraordinary professorship of chemistry at Giessen was conferred upon me in my twenty-first year.

My career in Giessen commenced in May, 1824. I always recall with pleasure the twenty-eight years which I spent there: it was as if Providence had led me to the little university. At a larger university or in a larger place my energies would have been divided and dissipated, and it would have been much more difficult, and perhaps impossible, to reach the goal at which I aimed; but at Giessen everything was concentrated in work, and in this I took passionate pleasure. The need for an institution in which the students could be instructed in the art of chemistry, by which I mean familiarity with chemical analytical operations, and skill in the use of apparatus, was then being felt; and hence it happened that, on the opening of my laboratory for teaching analytical chemistry and the methods of chemical research, students by degrees streamed to it from all sides. As the numbers increased I had the greatest difiiculty with the practical teaching itself. In order to teach a large number at one time it was necessary to have a systematic plan, or step-by-step method, which had first to be thought out and put to the proof. The manuals which several of my pupils have published later (Fresenius and Will) contain essentially, with little deviation, the course which was followed at Giessen; it is now familiar in almost every laboratory.

The production of chemical preparations was an object to which I paid very particular attention; it is very much more important than is usually believed, and one can more frequently find men who can make very good analyses than such as are in a position to produce a pure preparation in the most judicious way. The formation of a preparation is an art, and at the same time a qualitative analysis, and there is no other way of making one's self acquainted with the various chemical properties of a body than by first producing it out of the raw material, and then converting it into its numerous compounds and so becoming acquainted with them.

By ordinary analysis one does not learn by experience what an important means of separation crystallization is in skillful hands; and just as little the value of an acquaintance with the peculiarities of different solvents. Consider only an extract of a plant or of flesh which contains half a dozen crystalline bodies in very small quantities imbedded in extraneous matter, which almost entirely masks the properties of the others; and yet, in this magma, we can recognize by means of chemical reactions the peculiarities of every single body in the mixed mass, and learn to distinguish what is a product of decomposition and what is not, in order to be able to separate them afterward by means which will exert no decomposing influence. An example of the great difiiculty of finding the right way in such researches is afforded by the analysis of bile by Berzelius. Of all the numerous substances which he has described as its constituents no one is, properly speaking, contained in the natural bile.

An extremely short time had been sufficient for the famous pupils of the Swedish master to give a wonderful degree of perfection to mineral analysis, which depends on an accurate knowledge of the properties of inorganic bodies; their compounds and their behavior to each other were studied in all directions by the Swedish school with a keenness quite unusual previously and even now unsurpassed. Physical chemistry, which investigates the uniform relations between physical properties and chemical composition, had already gained a firm foundation by the discoveries of Gay-Lussac and von Humboldt on the combining proportions of bodies in the gaseous state, and those of Mitscherlich on the relations between crystalline form and chemical composition; and in chemical proportions the structure appeared to have received its coping-stones and to stand forth completed. All that foreign countries had acquired in by-gone times in the way of discoveries now yielded rich fruit also in Germany.

Organic chemistry — or what is now called organic chemistry — had then no existence. It is true that Thenard and Gay-Lussac, Berzelius, Prout, and Dobereiner, had already laid the foundations of organic analysis, but even the great investigations of Chevreul upon the fatty bodies excited but little attention for many years. Inorganic chemistry demanded too much attention, and, in fact, monopolized the best energies.

The bent which I acquired in Paris was in a quite different direction. Through the work which Gay-Lussac had done with me upon fulminating silver I was familiar with organic analysis, and I very soon saw that all progress in organic chemistry depended essentially upon its simplification; for in this branch of chemistry one has to do not with different elements which can he recognized by their peculiar properties, but always with the same elements whose relative proportions and arrangement determine the properties of organic compounds. In organic chemistry an analysis is necessary to do that for which a reaction suffices in inorganic chemistry. The first years of my career in Giessen I devoted almost exclusively to the improvement of the methods of organic analysis, and the immediate result was that there began at this little university an activity which had never before been seen. For the solution of innumerable questions connected with plants and animals, on their constituents, and on the reactions accompanying their transformation in the organism, a kindly fate brought together the most talented young men from all the countries of Europe, and any one can imagine what an abundance of facts and experiences I gained from so many thousands of experiments and analyses, which were carried out every year, and for so many years, by twenty and more indefatigable and skilled young chemists.

Actual teaching in the laboratory, of which practiced assistants took charge, was only for the beginners; the progress of my special students depended on themselves. I gave the task and supervised the carrying out of it; as the radii of a circle have all their common center. There was no actual instruction; I received from each individual every morning a report upon what he had done on the previous day, as well as his views on what he was engaged upon. I approved or made my criticisms. Every one was obliged to follow his own course. In the association and constant intercourse with each other, and by each participating in the work of all, every one learned from the others. Twice a week, in winter, I gave a sort of review of the most important questions of the day; it was mainly a report on my own and their work combined with the researches of other chemists.

We worked from break of day till nightfall. Dissipations and amusements were not to be had at Giessen. The only complaint, which was continually repeated, was that of the attendant (Aubel), who could not get the workers out of the laboratory in the evening, when he wanted to clean it. The remembrance of this sojourn at Giessen awakened in most of my pupils, as I have frequently heard, an agreeable sense of satisfaction for well-spent time.

I had the great good fortune, from the commencement of my career at Giessen, to gain a friend of similar tastes and similar aims, with whom, after so many years, I am still knit in the bonds of warmest affection. While in me the predominating inclination was to seek out the points of resemblance in the behavior of bodies or their compounds, he possessed an unparalleled faculty of perceiving their differences. A keenness of observation was combined in him with an artistic dexterity, and an ingeniousness in discovering new means and methods of research or analysis such as few men possess. The achievement of our joint work upon uric acid and oil of bitter almonds has frequently been praised; it was his work. I can not sufficiently highly estimate the advantage which the association with Wöhler brought to me in the attainment of my own as well as our mutual aims, for by that association were united the peculiarities of two schools—the good that was in each became effective by co-operation. Without envy and without jealousy, hand in hand, we pursued our way; when the one needed help the other was ready. Some idea of this relationship will be obtained if I mention that many of our smaller pieces of work which bear our joint names were done by one alone; they were charming little gifts which one presented to the other.

After sixteen years of the most laborious activity I collected the results gained, so far as they related to plants and animals, in my Chemistry applied to Agriculture and Physiology, two years later in my Animal Chemistry, and the researches made in other directions in my Chemical Letters. The last-mentioned was generally received as a popular work, which, to those who study it more closely, it really is not, or was not at the time when it appeared. Mistakes were made, not in the facts, but in the deductions about organic reactions; we were the first pioneers in unknown regions, and the difficulties in the way of keeping on the right path were sometimes insuperable. Now, when the paths of research are beaten roads, it is a much easier matter; but all the wonderful discoveries which recent times have brought forth were then our own dreams, whose realization we surely and without doubt anticipated.

Here the manuscript ends, and it is to be hoped that more of it will yet be found.

Liebig's reference to Wöhler is very touching, and shows a side of his character which all his pupils knew well; they tell many genial stories illustrating his unselfishness and kindness of heart. One could have wished that he had not considered the stories “bordering on the fabulous,” of how he “found favor in the sight of Humboldt, Gay-Lussac, and Thenard, out of place here.” They would have been far from out of place. Mr. Muspratt supplies one of these stories as he heard it from Liebig's own lips, in the Munich Laboratory, as follows:

Liebig frequently spoke in most grateful terms of the kind manner in which he—a youth barely eighteen—was received by Gay-Lussac, Thenard, and other eminent chemists, in Paris.

In the summer of 1823 he gave an account of his analysis of fulminating silver before the Academy. Having finished his paper, as he was packing up his preparations, a gentleman came up to him and questioned him as to his studies and future plans, and, after a most exacting examination, ended by asking him to dinner on the following Sunday. Liebig accepted the invitation, but, through nervousness and confusion, forgot to ask the name and address of his interviewer. Sunday came, and poor Liebig was in despair at not being able to keep his engagement.

The next day a friend came to him and said, “What on earth did you mean by not coming to dine with von Humboldt yesterday, who had invited Gay-Lussac and other chemists to meet you?” “I was thunderstruck,” said Liebig, “and rushed off, as fast as I could run, to von Humboldt's lodgings, and made the best excuses I could.” The great traveler, satisfied with the explanation, told him it was unfortunate, as he had several members of the Academy at his house to meet him, but thought he could make it all right if he would come to dinner next Sunday. He went, and there made the acquaintance of Gay-Lussac, who was so struck with the genius and enthusiasm of the youth that he took him into his private laboratory, and continued, in conjunction with him, the investigation of the fulminating compounds. — Chemical News.


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  1. Read at a joint meeting of societies in the Chemical Laboratories, University College, Liverpool, on Wednesday evening, March 18, 1891, by Prof. J. Campbell Brown, D. Sc. [At the recent celebration of the Jubilee of the Chemical Society, reference was made to the wonderful energy and ability of Liebig, to the great work which he did in founding organic chemistry, and to the immense stimulus which he gave, alike in his own country and in England, to scientific investigation in pure chemistry and in its applications to agriculture, physiology, and pathology. Very opportunely a portion of an autobiographical sketch in Liebig's own handwriting has just come to light, in which he gives a most Interesting account of the formation of his habits of thought, and of the development of his scientific activity. He also gives an amusing description of the lectures given in his student days by professors of the deductive method. In his sixtieth year, we are told, Liebig wrote some biographical sketches which were laid aside and could not be found when he wished to resume them. They were never finished. A portion of the manuscript was found among some other papers in Liebig's handwriting by his son Dr. Georg Baron von Liebig, and has been published by the latter in the Deutsche Rundschau for January, 1891. Mr. E. K. Muspratt has been good enough to lend me a copy which he received from his friend the present baron. I have endeavored to render it into English as literally as the difference in the idiom and modes of expression in the two languages will permit; and it is now made public in England by the kind permission of the Deutsche Rundschau. His method of teaching and its remarkable success are worthy of attention at the present time, when technical education is occupying so much of the public mind.]