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von Liebig
Justus von Liebig

Justus von Liebig was born in Darmstadt, Germany, on May 12th, 1803. His father sold painter's supplies and had in stock many of common kinds of chemicals used by artists and decorators. These interested the young Justus much more than his formal education, and when he was not helping his father, he was already carrying out his own kinds of experiments using them.

Not particularly happy in school, he was ridiculed when he answered the common question, "What are you going to be when you grow up?" with the answer "A chemist". As this occupation did not yet exist the fourteen year old Liebig had to put up with a lot of derisive laughter.

He also tried to blow up his house. One version of this almost legendary story goes this way. A traveling toy peddler once came to the Liebig house trying to sell a toy torpedo powered by a fulminate. Justus watched the peddler as he prepared the chemical from a combination of mercury, nitric acid and alcohol, and promptly decided he could do better.

He did, making much better versions of the toy and its powerful chemicals, which his father then sold in his store. The experimentation did not stop there, however, and subsequent experiments led, in some accounts, to Justus blowing up either the local gymnasium, or the attic room in his house.

an apprenticeship

In either case, his parents had had enough, so they sent him to work as an apprentice to an apothecary at Heppenheim, where in ten months he learnt all that was to learn and still found time to continue his experiments into explosive fulminates.

It was with a mixture of emotions that the Liebig family welcomed back their son from his apprenticeship in Heppenheim. They were a large family with not too much income, so another mouth to feed and another mind to educate were quite a burden. While at home, Justus continued experimenting and also haunted the library of a local duke. This may have been one of the reasons why he was given a small grant to enter the University of Bonn in 1820.

While at University he met, and impressed Karl Wilhelm Kastner who was on the point of moving to Erlangen. He persuaded Justus to follow him there by promising to teach him how to analyze various substances and chemicals in a new way, but, to his disappointment, Kastner did not really know what he was talking about, having been trained in a more classical, philosophical manner and not in the newer, more practical approaches.

while in jail

When he got out of jail student Justus Liebig petitioned the Grand Duke to let him go to Paris and study chemistry with the new, exciting chemists that were making such progress in that city. But why was he in jail in the first place?

Students like to join societies and fraternities, and Liebig was no exception. He joined, and help run, the Korps Rhenania, acting as it's treasurer. As well has high jinks and lots of drinking, these "korps" had an undercurrent of political activism that the authorities did not like. They were often banned.

At a particularly emotional outdoor meeting Liebig got carried away with his own oratory and insulted the police who were trying to break up the demonstration. He got so far out of control he knocked the helmet off one of the officers, and was put in jail for three days. While there he decided to take his career to Paris.

off to Paris

In November 1822 he found himself working with Gay-Lussac, was admitted to a private research laboratory, and continued his work on fulminates. The results of all his efforts were presented to the French Academy on March 22nd, 1824 and it must have had quite an effect as two days later he was made an "extraordinary" (which means assistant) professor at the University of Giessen in Germany.

He was only 21 at the time.

Liebig had arrived. Not that the others in his department particularly liked him, but when the only other chemist died, Liebig was able to begin his life's work - teaching others.

teaching chemistry

It is fair to say that all modern teaching of chemistry starts in Liebig's laboratory and classroom. He pioneered the concept that the study of chemistry had to be done using an experimental approach. Every student (and they came from all over the world, Great Britain, the United States and all of Europe sent their best and brightest), worked in bleak conditions, but received the highest degree of training that was possible.

Everyone learnt how to carry out quantitative and qualitative analysis, and were even given grounding in the new science of "synthesis", i.e. making new chemical compounds. They also did their own, supervised miniature research projects, a rarity in any teaching laboratory. It is generally reckoned that Liebig's greatest contribution to the future or chemistry and science was in the classroom.

He wrote books, scientific papers (over 200 still have his name on them), worked to improve food production and was not always right, but he would never be forgotten by all the chemists he trained, some of whom later became very famous in their own right.

working with Wohler

One of his more fundamental contributions to the science of chemistry came in 1825 when he entered into a friendly dispute with another great chemist - Friedrich Wohler, at the University of Gottingen. Both laboratories were apparently working on, and with, the same substance, but they were getting very different results. Who was wrong?

Neither, as it turned out. Despite the fact that Liebig's silver fulminic acid appeared to have exactly the same composition as Wohler's silver cyanate, they did not behave in the same way - at all!

After some dispute it became clear that just because these two substances contained exactly the same number and types of atoms, this did not mean that they were the same chemically. They began to suspect that a chemical compound was more than a simple collection of atoms, the way those atoms were arranged was of equal or greater importance.

arranging atoms in space

It was the start of "structural chemistry", which the two scientists extended later, in 1832, when they both discovered that certain groups of atoms formed stable, local arrangements between themselves, and that these stable groups could be moved around from one substance to another. At the time these stable groups were called radicals, and the first of them to be found was the benzoyl radical.

This was found during a study of the oil in almonds (now called benzaldehyde), and they also found that this benzoyl group of atoms could be altered by changing the nature of other atoms and elements joined to it. It was the start of a brand new way of thinking about chemical bonding in organic chemistry.

After a long, interesting and productive life, Justus von Liebig died on April 18th, 1873.


Science@a Distance
© 2002, Professor John Blamire