Thursday, January 21, 2021

Jöns Jacob Berzelius

Jöns Jacob Berzelius was born on August 20, 1779, in Väversunda, Sweden. His father, Samuel, a provincial schoolmaster and died when Jöns Jacob was four years old. His mother, Elizabeth Dorothea, remarried to Anders Ekmarck, a pastor and died shortly afterward.

In the autumn of 1796, after finishing four years of secondary school, he went to Uppsala to begin medical studies. He began his medical studies at the age of seventeen but was forced to withdraw when his scholarship was withdrawn, not, however, before learning much chemistry from Anders Gustav Ekeberg (1767 -1813), the discoverer of tantalum.

At an early age Berzelius had been impressed with the chemistry of Jeremias Benjamin Richter (1762-1807), who discovered the Law of Neutrality and coined the term stoichiometry, and Joseph Louis Proust (1754- 1826), who discovered the Law of Constant Proportions.

In May 1802 he presented his doctor’s thesis where he reported on his experiments in the medical use of galvanic current for curing all kinds of complaints from swollen knees to St. Vitus’s dance. In his list of treated cases Berzelius was able to cite only one positive result: a certain improvement in the locomotive faculty of a man suffering from numb fingers, but the thesis, a mere fourteen pages, was nevertheless a pioneer work in a new field of medical Science.

After graduation, he became an assistant to the professor of surgery at Stockholm. Although he preferred chemistry to medicine economic reasons forced him to serve as regional physician near Stockholm.

Berzelius was one of the most prominent chemists of the 19th century; his scientific contributions were fundamental to the understanding of chemistry and the setting of standards for experimental work.

In 1803 Berzelius and Hisinger, independent of each other, succeeded in isolating a new element which they named cerium after the recently-discovered asteroid Ceres.

Berzelius also discovered the elements, selenium, and thorium, and was the first to isolate silicon, calcium, barium, strontium, tantalum, and zirconium in pure form.

In 1807, Berzelius became Professor of Medicine and Pharmacy at Stockholm’s School of Surgery (where he had previously worked as an unpaid assistant). He gave up this post after being elected secretary of Kungliga Svenska Vetenskapsakademien (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences).

In 1807 Berzelius and six other physicians founded the Swedish Medical Society, and in 1812 he was appointed permanent secretary of the recently created Academy of Agriculture, a position he retained for the rest of his life. He died in 1848, four decades after being elected to Sweden’s Royal Academy of Science in the eventful year of 1808.
Jöns Jacob Berzelius


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