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Jons Jakob Berzelius

Jons Jakob Berzelius was born on August 20 1779, in Sorgard, Sweden. His family was comfortably middle class but the tragedy of his father dying while he was still young, the re-marriage of his mother, who also died a year later, left its mark on the growing scientist. He was sent to school in Linkoping (where he had to tutor students for a stipend) and became a very good linguist (German and French).

In 1796, when he was seventeen, he obtained a scholarship and went to medical school in the University of Uppsala where he learnt a lot about chemistry from A.G. Eckberg and read about the new "Volta pile", a primitive first type of electrical battery. So he built one for himself.

Unfortunately his scholarship was withdrawn and he had to ask for help from a rich Uncle. This uncle got him an apprenticeship to a physician at the Medivi mineral springs (a health cure place), which helped to support him while he finished his studies.

In his thesis for his medical degree he described the effect of giving electric shocks, which he called "galvano therapy", to his patients (which had no obvious affect on their medical condition, but must have been very dramatic), and allowed him to graduate in 1802.

By 1807 he was a professor of medicine and pharmacy at the Karolinsska Institute (originally called the Medical College in Stockholm). He was made a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences a year later. Other honors included a baronetcy (1835) and a marriage to Elizabeth Poppius.

shocking !

However, as a scientist, he made his initial reputation using the electrical battery (which he called a "voltaic pile"). He and Humphrey Davy, in England, were able to use electrical current to break up, or decompose, compound chemicals into their separate parts or constituents. In this way water, for example, could be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen.

Using this approach he was able to discover a number of new elements, including cerium, selenium, and thorium. While students working with him in his laboratory discovered lithium and vanadium. These were inorganic substances, and he was able to show that they are bound to one another in definite proportions by weight (which became the law of constant proportions).

As an electrical current passed though compounds of these elements, Berzelius noted that some elements formed themselves at the negative pole of the electrolytic cell, and others formed at the positive pole of the cell. This strongly suggested that the elements had opposite charges, positive or negative. When an element with a positive charge met a different element with a negative charge they were attracted to one another, joined, and were held together by the resulting neutralization of both charges.


This concept was one of the first breakthroughs of Berzelius's long scientific career. It was called dualism, and it worked well in explaining the results he was getting in the field of inorganic chemistry. It did not work so well in the newer field of organic chemistry.

According to Berzelius, therefore, all complex compounds actually consisted of two separate parts with opposing electrical charges. Thus all natural chemicals could be broken down and analyzed quantitatively and qualitatively for their positive and negatively charged constituents.

Berzelius's work gradually led to a better and better understanding of "combining proportions", which was called stoichiometry at that time. John Dalton, in England, had started this idea by demonstrating that compounds were actually formed from constant, multiple and equivalent proportions of their constituents. Berzelius took this idea a lot further and through a large body of work he established clear rules for the quantitative specificity used when substances combine with one another.

a good writer

He wrote up his results, and kept up a vigorous correspondence with scientists around the world, sending them copies of his famous article Essai sur la thˇorie des proportions chimiques et sur l'influence chimique de l'ˇlectricitˇ ("Essay on the Theory of Chemical Proportions and on the Chemical Influence of Electricity"), which he published in 1819.

He also published tables of atomic weights, which were the best around for many, many years, and he continued his analytical work until about 1844, reporting his findings year after year in professional journals and a series of textbooks. He was a prolific communicator.


Today, however, most chemists remember Berzelius for his development of a symbolic representation system. Using the new Berzelius system, the composition of any compound or substance could represented by the use of various one or two letter combinations.

He abbreviated the equivalent Latin names for each element to either one or two letters, and then designated how many of these elements were in a compound using a superscript number:


He also used dots over the letters to represent the various electrical charges, but neither the superscript letters or the dots really caught on among other scientists, who preferred subscript numbers and positive or negative signs ("+" or "-") for the various charges. This is the system used today.

Berzelius had a lot less success when he tried to apply his ideas and methods to the new, exciting field of organic chemistry. Despite a lot of work, he found that his techniques of analysis gave him no clear insight into the structure or composition of organic molecules. He did isolate stoichiometric compounds and determined which elements were used to form them, and he tried very hard to thrust his ideas of "dualism" (which had worked so well for inorganic compounds) onto organic compounds.

later life

But his constant attempts to explain organic chemistry using terms and ideas that applied to inorganic chemistry peaked in about 1835, and subsequently became more of a drag on the whole area of research than a basis for it's advancement. Berzelius was such a powerful figure in chemistry by then that his rejection of any other ideas but his own probably hindered the emerging theories of organic chemistry significantly.

As Jean-Baptiste-Andre Dumas, and Auguste Laurent slowly began to bring out some new ideas in both inorganic and organic chemistry, Berzelius put up a strong negative fight against them and this stubborn resistance to new ideas considerably tarnished his reputation both at the time and in the minds of various historians since. Some of this perceived resistance may have been exaggerated then and now, but the taint still lingers.

He died on August 7, 1848 in Stockholm

Science@a Distance
© 2001, Professor John Blamire