Museum Review: Mendeleev at Home

Photomechanical print show Dmitri Mendeleev and colleagues in front of the Russian Senate wall before the enclosure ceremony for the new prototype of the ashin (a unit of measurement equal to approximitely 28 inches) and the Russian pound, ca. 1898.

Photomechanical print show Dmitri Mendeleev and colleagues in front of the Russian Senate wall before the enclosure ceremony for the new prototype of the ashin (a unit of measurement equal to approximitely 28 inches) and the Russian pound, ca. 1898.

Situated along the banks of the Neva River is St. Petersburg University, just a short walk over the Dvortsovyy Bridge from the Hermitage Museum. Founded in 1724 by decree of Czar Peter the Great, the university still occupies the massive building designated by Peter as the “Twelve Colleges.” And it is here, on the street now called Mendeleevskaya liniya, that the Mendeleev Museum and Archives is located.

This remarkable museum was originally the apartment designated for the university’s professor of chemistry and laboratory curator. In that capacity, Dmitri Mendeleev (1834–1907) lived here with his wife, Anna Popova-Mendeleeva, during his professorial tenure from 1866 to 1890. It was here that he wrote many of his scientific papers. After his death in 1907 the university and the Russian Chemical Society purchased his personal library, archives, and some furniture from his widow. These effects formed the basis of the museum that was established there only four years later in 1911.

The central attractions of the museum are the three rooms that were originally Mendeleev’s living room, dining room, and study. The first room contains memorabilia associated with his childhood and youth, as well as photographs of family members, artists, scientists, architects, and close colleagues who gathered for socializing and conversation each Wednesday evening. (As a chemist, Mendeleev acted as an adviser to artists and architects on the composition of pigments and of building materials.)

The second room, which in Mendeleev’s lifetime served as a dining room, is devoted to recording Mendeleev’s life before he came to St. Petersburg University, including his study at the Main Pedagogical Institute in St. Petersburg from 1850 to 1855 and his work trip to Heidelberg from 1859 to 1861. Also recorded in the second room is his discovery of the periodic law in 1869. Here the visitor can view his stand-up desk (he was a very tall man for the times) and some of his monographs on a variety of subjects, such as mineralogy, isomorphism, and specific volume. These monographs reflect Mendeleev’s early interest in connecting internal properties to external form. There are also some examples from his mineral collection and the wooden models of crystalline forms that he constructed himself.

The third, and most evocative room, is Mendeleev’s reconstructed study, where everything remains as it was during the last years of his life. Here one can see, among other items, a group of photographs of Mendeleev with the discoverers of some of his “eka-elements” (elements whose future discovery Mendeleev predicted in 1869): Lars Fredrik Nilson, who discovered scandium in 1879; Paul Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran, who discovered gallium in 1875; and Clemens Winkler, who discovered germanium in 1886.

The museum also conserves Mendeleev’s personal archives. This famous collection has as its base a cataloging system developed by Mendeleev himself and consists of over 35,000 titles, encompassing manuscripts, draft documents, letters, telegrams, diaries, notebooks, laboratory registers, expenditure accounts, and correspondence with Russian and foreign scientists. In addition, over 200 scientific instruments, many of them built specifically for Mendeleev, are housed here. There is also a world map that shows all the places Mendeleev visited (including northwestern Pennsylvania) as part of his scientific travels.

Although Mendeleev is best remembered for his discovery of the periodic law, his other major achievements were authorship of a major textbook, Principles of Chemistry (which included the periodic law), his studies on the elasticity of gases, and his studies of solutions as associations, to say nothing of his far-ranging eclectic interests in a variety of other fields. A visit to this museum evokes an appreciation for all of his interests in one small space.

If the Mendeleev aficionado’s curiosity has not been satisfied with this museum chock-full of memorabilia, a short subway ride to the Technological Institute (via line 1 or line 2) will bring him or her face to face with the famous cigar-smoking Mendeleev statue at the foot of the giant periodic table built into the wall of one of the university buildings. From the viewpoint of this explorer, it is well worth the journey. 

Mary Virginia Orna is an editor-at-large for Chemical Heritage.