An Element of Order

Dmitri Mendeleev and his famous periodic table. (Edgar Fahs Smith Collection, University of Pennsylvania Libraries; Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, CHF)

Dmitri Mendeleev and his famous periodic table. (Edgar Fahs Smith Collection, University of Pennsylvania Libraries; Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, CHF)

In the mid-19th century in much of Europe, Britain, and the United States, the names of progress were technology, trade, and human liberty. The not-yet-unified German states were growing into competitors to the traditional scientific powerhouses of France and Britain. Even Russia began to bend to the winds of change despite being an autocratic, largely agricultural society where serfs were bound to the land they worked and government censorship was the norm.

Two young men began their professional journeys at this time. In 1850 a teenager from Siberia began to study chemistry in St. Petersburg, the Russian capital. In the 1860s the now-citified provincial became a civil servant in the tsar’s government. He was a devoted teacher, aware of the lack of good textbooks in Russian. At age 35, to make the lives of his students easier, he wrote a chemistry textbook in his native language that contained a simple table categorizing the elements.

Meanwhile the other man, a German, studied medicine in Switzerland and then chemistry in the German states under two of that region’s great scientists: Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff. He too became a teacher, shifting between various German universities, and wrote chemistry textbooks, the first of which contained a simple table categorizing the elements.

Both men are now important names in the history of science: Dmitri Mendeleev and Julius Lothar Meyer. Each man created a periodic system of the elements. And while Meyer’s first version of his table appeared in 1864 and Mendeleev’s not until 1869, it is Mendeleev who has become widely known as the single parent of the periodic table. But this is not a story of injustice, of a man who never received his due. Instead it reveals the changing nature of chemistry. What follows is a tale that undermines our expectations of what and who makes a great scientist and hangs as much on language as on science.

Two Chemists

At age 15 Mendeleev emerged from Tobolsk, the old capital of Siberia, a most unusual place to find a budding chemist. His mother, in search of opportunities for her bright son, took him to St. Petersburg for his education, where he pursued the sciences, especially chemistry. After a miserable two years teaching uninterested high-school students in Crimea, Mendeleev wrangled a government-subsidized postdoctoral position that took him to Heidelberg.

Meyer, unlike Mendeleev, came from a scientifically inclined family. Meyer worked as a gardener when migraines forced him out of high school for a time. Afterward he followed the standard path for Germans intent on becoming professors, deviating only a little in the breadth of his chemical interests and in the number of places at which he studied: Zurich for general chemistry and the German states for physiological chemistry, physical chemistry, and physics.

Meyer’s education exposed him to more theoretical speculations than were usual for a chemist, certainly more than Mendeleev experienced, but to an outside observer he followed the itinerant and slightly dull university-bound life of a man establishing himself as a professor in Germany. Mendeleev, however, followed anything but a predictable path for a professor of chemistry. He was forced to make a place for himself among the long-established elites of St. Petersburg, where he spent the rest of his life. Mendeleev taught chemistry, published much, became skilled in public relations, and presented himself as a general-purpose intellectual on scientific topics, including oil production, agriculture, and even cheese making. Far more is known about Mendeleev than Meyer (the former kept all his notes, records, and letters dating from the first inklings of his periodic system’s potential).

The tsar’s emancipation of the serfs in 1861 led to rapid urbanization and the beginnings of an industrial revolution as ex-serfs, who made up 80% of Russia’s population, moved to cities in search of economic opportunities. Russia was feeling the early tremors of a seismic cultural shift that would precipitate its transition from an agricultural to an industrial nation. These changes offered opportunities to a man of Mendeleev’s temperament and skills. Mendeleev taught at St. Petersburg University, but he also advised the state on such science-related topics as tariffs on imported chemicals, parts for chemical factories, and the growing oil industry. Along with these economic transformations came political ones that led to a partial liberalization—although not democratization—of the state. Censorship of the press was eased, universities reformed, and education expanded to create a technical elite who would build the factories that would modernize a Russia that remained under the tsar’s control.

And that was the system Mendeleev liked. “He wanted the tsar to be firmly in control,” says historian Michael D. Gordin, author of A Well-Ordered Thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table. “He was pro-progress, pro-modernization, pro-liberalization of the economy. He was not pro-democracy. He saw the beginnings of parliament in 1905, and he didn’t like it.” Mendeleev wanted Russia to compete economically with Britain and Germany, or, as he put it in the last years of his life, “to catch up and overtake.”