by Lyudmila BONDARENKO, staff member of the Mendeleev Museum Archive with the St. Petersburg State University
When we hear the name Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev the first that comes to mind is the Periodic Law. And still, that all-round scientist has penned fundamental works in physics, metrology, aeronautics, chemical technology, meteorology, agriculture and economics.
Dmitry Mendeleev was born in 1837 in Tobolsk. The same year the father of the would - be great scholar, director of the local gymnasium, had to retire for loss of sight. Dmitry's mother, to provide for her eight children, took up the management of a small glass factory which belonged to her brother-the reason why the Mendeleevs had to move to the country, closer to the works.
The production was extremely neglected. Trying to bring it up to a profitable level, Maria Dmitrievna was busy day and night, and the children were practically unattended. And a moment came when the mother faced the choice: to continue attempts to restore the plant or wholeheartedly devote herself to the upbringing of the off - springs. Naturally, Maria Dmitrievna chose the latter. The family returned to Tobolsk.
Years passed. Dmitry finished the gymnasium and mother insisted that he proceed with his education at the university. But it turned out that the young man could not enroll in the Moscow University: according to the regulation issued by the Ministry of Public Education he was allowed to study at a university of his academic district only - Kazansky for one. The St. Petersburg University gave the same reply. But the northern capital had many other higher schools, and Dmitry chose the Principal Pedagogical Institute his father had graduated from.
The institute was not very popular, since its graduates had to work at least eight years as teachers. But the level of teaching was excellent. The location of the institute must have had some role in that-the building of Twelve Collegiums which it shared with the St. Petersburg University. Therefore, the students of both institutions were taught by the same professors, and lectured by prominent scholars: academicians Mikhail Ostrogradsky (mathematics), Fyodor Brand (zoology), Emiliy Lenz (physics).
Dmitry Ivanovich later reminisced: "We did not have to bother with superfluous material matters of flat, board, clothes or books which take up too much peace of mind, energy and time of contemporary students: everything was OK; as for the professors, they were superb... and all kinds of study aids were at hand: libraries, laboratories, studies, museums. Young zeal was not extinguished but whipped up there, it was allowed to be channeled into the
course of science, and it captivated many for life."
Maria Dmitrievna soon died. The lucid memory of her was cherished by Mendeleev through his entire life. He prefaced one of his most prominent works "Study of Water Solutions on the Basis of Specific Weight" with such lines: "Dedicated to mother by her offspring. She could raise him with her toil only engaging in trade; she brought him up with example, corrected with love and, to devote to science, took him out of Siberia spending her last money and strength."
During his first year with the institute Dmitry's marks were not high: told insufficient knowledge and weak health. Later he left many students behind but could not overcome his illness completely. Once in the institute hospital he heard the doctor's verdict to himself and his ward-mate: "These two will never survive." His comrade died, but Mendeleev recovered and in 1855 graduated with honors.
Most of all, Dmitry was keen on zoology, mineralogy, and, certainly, chemistry in which he majored. A great deal of credit for this discipline's having become the focus of Mendeleev's academic interest belongs to his favorite tutor Alexander Voskresensky. One of the best disciples of renowned Justus Liebig * , promising well as a scientist, Voskresensky on his return from Germany took up teaching. Talent, high reputation in academic community and charisma won him love and appreciation of numerous students who conferred on their master the honorable title of "the grandfather of Russian chemists".
Mendeleev recalled: "I vividly remember the appeal of unaffected simplicity of narration and the constant encouragement of self-work with which Voskresensky recruited many young talents in the field of chemistry. Others talked at length about the great hardships of learned profession, but in Voskresensky's laboratory we most often heard his favorite proverb: 'It's not the gods that fire pottery and bake bricks', that is why in laboratories supervised by Voskresensky students were not afraid to take science in hands but tried hard to mold and bake bricks making up the edifice of chemical knowledge." On graduation Dmitry Ivanovich took up a year's tutorship in the south of Russia, then he got his mastership, spent some time reading lectures at the St. Petersburg University and was seconded abroad to complete education. A year later he was reporting to the Curator of the St. Petersburg Academic District on his research carried out in Heidelberg (Germany): "For many reasons I was to choose as my first subject of studies the definition of chemical compounds, i.e., take up the problems of capillary action, density and expansion of bodies... As it seems, I have managed to achieve some substantial results in this field... Presently I have finished a work related to the expansion of liquids above the boiling point at high pressures. Quite unexpectedly I have attained the general result whereby this heretofore obscure problem may be regarded as resolved."
At the end of 1860 Mendeleev finished the article "On the Expansion of Liquids at Heating Above the Boiling Point" in which he reported the "absolute boiling temperature" (later termed critical) calculated by him, which was the young chemist's first major discovery. This work, together with other publications in authoritative European scientific journals, caught the attention of for-
* Justus Liebig (1803 - 1873) - the German chemist who discovered isomerism-the existence of substances identical in composition and molecular mass but different in structure and properties; a founder of agrochemistry and chemistry of residuals. - Ed.
eign scientists but met rather chilly welcome in Russia.
Back in St. Petersburg in February 1861, he practically had to start from scratch: his Heidelberg achievements were not recognized at home, he had no means of subsistence but enormous debt. Mendeleev had to seek any job just to have some income. And Dmitry Ivanovich plunged into literary work. He wrote and published the textbook "Organic Chemistry", took up the preparation for print of "Wagner's Technology": translation, adaptation and supplementation in application to Russian industry of a book by the prominent German chemical engineer Wagner, which had come out in the late 1850s in Leipzig and was a great success in Europe.
At the same time Dmitry Ivanovich began to teach physics at the Michailovskaya Engineering Academy, physical geography at the 2nd Cadet Corps, chemistry at the Institute of the Railway Engineers' Corps and organic chemistry at the St. Petersburg University. Now he had money, was paying debts but was not happy with his way of life. "Boring, to say the truth. Life is terribly busy, but all activities are, essentially, unsatisfying-hard, dull, spiritually empty", he complains in December 1861. As follows from his diaries of those years, Dmitry Ivanovich was contemplating going into business, a sphere familiar since childhood. He hoped that profits would relieve him of the concerns about means of subsistence and allow to go ahead with studies.
However, in 1862 the scientist was conferred the full Demidov Prize * for "Organic Chemistry". In the same year "Wagner's Technology" brought him renown. Next year Mendeleev was invited to work for the Ministry of Finance Technical Committee.
In the summer of 1863 the big Russian entrepreneur V. Kokorev asked Mendeleev to advise him on the problems of oil refinery in Surukhany, near Baku. Dmitry Ivanovich went to the plant, helped to arrange the technological process and advised to move the works closer to the consumers for better guaranteed sales. The tycoon highly appraised the consultant's expertise and offered cooperation. On return home, Dmitry Ivanovich got down to a draft contract on the establishment of an oil refinery near Nizhni Novgorod under his management.
But on January 1, 1864 Mendeleev was officially confirmed in two offices: Professor of Chemistry with the Technological Institute and Assistant Professor with the St. Petersburg University. Now he could give up teaching at other schools and the project of a plant of his own and devote himself to science. "Getting the chair with the Technological Institute, I took the opportunity and presented my first work as a thesis," the scientist recalled.
At this point we will make a full stop in our narration about the making of the great chemist. A chair of the St. Petersburg University and the Periodic Law were still to come... But time and again Mendeleev would return in his mind to Russian industry. His life seems to have incorporated two. Musing over it in his declining years, Dmitry Ivanovich expressed that in a few words: "Sciences and industry are my dream. Just them and my children."
* The Demidov Prize of the Academy of Sciences (instituted by P. Demidov) was awarded in 1832 - 1865 for published works in science, technology and arts. The most honorary academic award in Russia.
Permanent link to this publication:
LUnited States LWorld Y G