The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Berzelius, Johan Jakob

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1867926The American Cyclopædia — Berzelius, Johan Jakob

BERZELIUS, Johan Jakob, baron, a Swedish chemist, born at Väfversunda, district of Linköping, Aug. 20, 1779, died in Stockholm, Aug. 7, 1848. His father was government schoolmaster in his native village, and was very poor. Berzelius received his early education at home, and in 1796, through the assistance of friends, commenced the study of medicine in the university of Upsal. The lectures at Upsal in those days were read without any experimental illustrations, and the instructions in the laboratory were of a superficial and unsatisfactory kind. He contrived, however, to obtain the means of making an analysis of a mineral water, and in 1800 published his first paper, entitled Nova Analysis Aquarum Medeviensium, which at once gained for him considerable local celebrity. In 1802 he became adjunct professor of medicine in Stockholm, at the same time practising his profession and delivering lectures on chemistry. At this period nearly all the scientific men of the world were attracted by Volta's discoveries to experiment with voltaic electricity, and Berzelius in 1803 published an important paper on the action of electric currents on solutions of salts, in which he first pointed out that combustible bodies, alkalies, and earths went to the negative pole, while oxygen and the acids went to the positive. Three years later Davy published similar views and extended his researches further than Berzelius, as he had far greater means at his command; in Davy's paper, however, no allusion is made to Berzelius, an omission which was at once supplied by the translators of Davy's article for the German and Swedish annals. In 1806 Berzelius was made teacher of chemistry at the military school of Carlberg, and in 1807 was appointed professor of medicine and pharmacy at the medical institute in Stockholm. At this time he constructed a battery consisting of zinc, copper, and two liquids so made that the zinc was not attacked by the liquid in which it was immersed, while the copper was rapidly oxidized. By aid of this apparatus and the employment of mercury at the negative pole, he succeeded early in 1808 in preparing the metals calcium, barium, and the supposed amalgam of ammonium. Simultaneously with his electrical researches he conducted the analysis of minerals, and in 1803, when he was only 23 years old, made the discovery of the metal cerium. While thus engaged it was necessary for him to practise medicine for his support, and he even established a manufactory of artificial mineral waters in order to add to his scanty income. The variety of his occupations at this period of his life somewhat interfered with the systematic course of investigation which he subsequently adopted. The tendency of his researches was due to accident; the fashion of the day led him to pursue galvanism, his intimate association with Hisinger suggested mineralogy, and his avocation as a physician naturally brought in physiological chemistry. The discovery of the alkaline metals by Davy and his own success in the same direction prompted him to apply himself to the study of the elements, and then commenced the really great work of his life, which culminated in the promulgation of the law of chemical proportion. To prove the correctness of this law, Berzelius reëxamined all known chemical compounds and prepared many new ones. In the execution of this great work it was necessary for him to devise new methods of analysis and to invent all of the apparatus for their execution. He had to distil his alcohol from brandy, and the commonest reagents were prepared in his laboratory. He invented the lamp with double draft, since called the Berzelius lamp; he also introduced smaller quantities of substances which could be burned and weighed in platinum crucibles; funnels, beakers, wash bottles, Swedish filter paper, rubber and glass tubing, and a great variety of other aids were introduced by him; and he removed the laboratory from the dingy cellar to airy upper rooms, and elevated chemistry from a black art to an exact science. In 1818, after many years of patient industry, Berzelius was prepared to publish a list of 2,000 simple and compound bodies, giving their exact chemical composition. It was natural for him to apply the same methods of research to minerals that he did to artificial compounds, and he was early in the field with his famous mineral system founded upon chemistry. Mohs adopted crystalline form, hardness, and specific gravity as the basis of classification, and did not care for an elementary analysis. Berzelius thought this was much like a person groping in the dark refusing to accept more light for fear of seeing too much. As the only mineral analyses extant were by Bergman, Klaproth, and Vauquelin, it was necessary to repeat all of them before any system could be established; and it was not till 1847 that the last edition of Berzelius's “Mineral Chemistry” was published under Rammelsberg's revision. Under the instruction of his old friend Gahn of Fahlun, the pupil of Bergman and friend of Scheele, Berzelius acquired great skill in the use of the blowpipe, and published a book on the subject which for 30 years was the leading authority, until superseded by Plattner's more comprehensive work. As early as 1806, in conjunction with Hisinger, he commenced the “Memoirs relative to Physics, Chemistry, and Mineralogy,” and his numerous contributions to those sciences, amounting in all to more than 200 papers, obtained for him that high rank which he holds as an accurate observer and experimental analyst. He was one of the chief founders of the medical society of Sweden, and in 1808 he became a member of the royal Swedish academy, of which he was chosen president in 1810. In the intervals of his public duties he paid several visits to Paris, and in 1812 he spent some time in London. In 1815 the king of Sweden named Berzelius a knight of the order of Vasa; and in 1818 he was appointed perpetual secretary of the Stockholm academy of sciences. On the coronation of the king in the same year, Berzelius was ennobled, and, contrary to the custom of the country, was allowed to retain his own name. In 1821 he was named commander of the order of Vasa, and France gave him the insignia of the legion of honor, and Austria those of the order of Leopold. His works are both numerous and important. He contributed to the “Physical Memoirs,” during a period of 12 years, 47 original papers of great merit. His treatise on chemistry went through five large editions, and was partly rewritten each time. It is most complete and best known in the edition translated into French under his own inspection, by Esslinger, and published in 8 vols. at Brussels in 1835. The last volume contains his very remarkable dissertation on chemical apparatus, with essays on qualitative and quantitative analysis, and the use of the blowpipe. The 5th edition, begun in 1842, was carried through 5 vols., including one on organic chemistry, previous to his death in 1848. At the instigation of Berzelius the members of the academy of sciences of Stockholm consented to prepare yearly reports on the progress of all the sciences. Berzelius took upon himself the department of physics, chemistry, geology, and mineralogy; and his share of the labor has been of great use to the scientific world. The reports, begun in 1820, were continued to the time of his death, and since 1847 have been conducted by Liebig, Wöhler, and Kopp in Germany. We thus have a complete series of reports on the progress of chemistry since 1820. It is worthy of note that all the leading chemists of Germany, excepting Liebig, were pupils of Berzelius. Soon after his marriage in 1833, the directors of the Swedish iron works, in acknowledgment of the light his researches had thrown on their art, and of his services to the useful arts of his country, conferred on him a pension for life.