Berzelius, J?ns Jakob

Swedish chemist

Born: V?versunda, Sorgard, August 20, 1779

Died: Stockholm, August 7, 1848

Lecoq De Boisbaudran

Berzelius lost his father while very young. His mother re-married, but died soon after and his stepfather saw to his education. Berzelius attended medical school at Uppsala where he studied under Ekeberg, among others.

He was an indifferent student and only graduated because of his unusual proficiency in physics. In 1807 he determined the elementary composition of many various compounds and advanced so many examples of the the law of definite proportions announced by Proust, that it virtually proved the validity of the theory. This, in turn, helped place Daltons atomic theory on a firm footing and Berzelius turned his attention to the study of atomic weight.

He published a table of atomic weights in 1828 which was the first reasonably accurate table of its kind. While working with elements, Berzelius found it tedious to refer to elements by their full names, and suggested that the initial letter of the Latin name (or initial letter plus second letter) could be used as a symbol. Thus, oxygen could be O, nitrogen N, hydrogen H, calcium Ca, chlorine Cl, copper(cuprum) Cu, gold(aurum) Au, and so on. The makeup of compounds could be expressed with such letters, together with numerical subscripts, where more than one atom was present in the molecule. Thus, ammonia would be NH3, calcium carbonate CaCO3, and so on. Berzelius is also credited with the discovery of the elements selenium, silicon and thorium.

By 1830, Berzelius was the greatest chemical authority in the world. Between 1821 and 1849, he published a yearly review of chemical progress. His interests placed him in the midst of every branch of chemistry and many commonly used words - catalysis, isomer, protein - were introduced at his suggestion.

He suffered from poor health in later life, but in 1835, at the age of fifty-six, he finally married a twenty-four year old woman, with whom his last decade was spent in complete happiness. On his wedding day, the Swedish king, Charles XIV, made him a baron as a wedding gift.

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