Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev

The Russian chemist Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev, b. Feb. 8 (N.S.), 1834, d. Feb. 2 (N.S.), 1907, formulated the periodic table, one of the most useful and important generalizations of chemistry and of all science. The fourteenth and last child of Ivan Pavlovich Mendeleyev, a teacher of Russian literature, and Maria Dmitrievna Kornileva, who came from a Siberian merchant family, Mendeleyev was born in Tobolsk, Siberia (now Tyumen Oblast). He enrolled (1850) in the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics of the Main Pedagogical Institute in Saint Petersburg, from which he graduated with a brilliant record in 1855 . He taught (1855-56) at the Odessa lyceum, where he continued work on the relationships between the crystal forms and the chemical composition of substances.

In addition to his theoretical research, the application of science to industry and economics remained one of his primary concerns. He then worked (1859-60) at the University of Heidelberg, where he first collaborated with Robert Bunsen and studied capillary phenomena and the deviations of gases and vapors from the ideal gas laws. In 1860, Mendeleyev discovered the concept of critical temperature (see critical constants) and attended the first International Chemical Congress at Karlsruhe, where Stanislao Cannizzaro's views on atomic weights planted the seeds for the concept of the periodic table.

Mendeleyev served as professor of chemistry at the Saint Petersburg Technological Institute (1864-66) and at the University of Saint Petersburg (1867-90), a post that he resigned in protest against the administration's treatment of student petitions for reform. Because he found no suitable text for his students, he wrote his own--Principles of Chemistry (1868-71), which appeared in eight Russian, three English (the last, in 1905, reprinted in 1969), and several French and German editions. The systematization of ideas required for this book led Mendeleyev to formulate the periodic law in March 1869. The law organized the chemical elements known at the time according to their atomic weights and predicted the existence of more elements.

In subsequent years Mendeleyev refined and modified his law, which was received with considerable skepticism. After Paul Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran, Lars Fredrik Nilson, and Clemens Winkler discovered the elements gallium (1875), scandium (1879), and germanium (1886), respectively--whose existence was predicted by Mendeleyev in 1871--the periodic law was universally accepted; Mendeleyev became famous and was showered with honors.

He was sent (1876) by the Russian government to study petroleum production in the United States. His interests later turned to commercial matters concerned with the national economy. Mendeleyev also worked on the liquefaction of gases; the expansion of liquids; a theory of solutions; a theory of the inorganic origin of petroleum; the chemistry of coal; Russian weights and measures; and the universal ether. He helped found the Russian Chemical Society in 1868.

George B. Kauffman


Bibliography: Farber, Eduard, Great Chemists (1961); Partington, J. R., A Short History of Chemistry (1989); Petranov, I.V., and Trifonov, P. N., Elementary Order (1985); Vucinich, Alexander, Science in Russian Culture (1970).


Last modified on: Thursday, October 30, 1997.