Mayo Clinic Proceedings Home

Jöns Jacob Berzelius – A Father of Chemistry

      Jöns Jacob Berzelius was born in Väversunda, Östergötland, near Linköping, Sweden, on August 20, 1779. His father, Samuel, a teacher in the Linköping Gymnasium, died when his son was 4 years of age. His mother, Elizabeth, subsequently married the pastor of the Lutheran church in the town of Norrköping, so Jacob and his sister were raised together with the 5 children of their stepfather. Conflicts with his step-siblings resulted in Berzelius taking a position as a tutor on a nearby farm in 1794, where he developed an interest in collecting and classifying flowers and insects.
      Berzelius matriculated at the University of Uppsala in 1796, where he studied medicine. One of his professors, Anders Gustaf Ekberg (1767-1813), was the discoverer of the element tantalum. Berzelius' stepbrother introduced him to chemistry, which he found stimulating; however, the chemistry faculty in Uppsala did not encourage young Berzelius. Subsequently, he began to carry out experiments in his own quarters. He had planned to live with his aunt while in Uppsala, but her husband was not supportive; so instead, Jacob worked as an apprentice in a pharmacy. Here he learned glassblowing and became familiar with various medications.
      Given an unpaid assistantship with a physician who worked near the Medevi mineral springs, Berzelius began analyzing the mineral content of the spring water. He read about the newly described “voltaic pile” by Alessandro Volta, which was the first reliable source of an electric current. He then built his own voltaic pile with alternating zinc discs and copper coins. His doctoral thesis at Uppsala consisted of a study of the effect of galvanic current on patients with various diseases, which produced no benefit for the patients.
      After obtaining his medical degree in 1802 from the University of Uppsala, he secured an appointment as an assistant to the Professor of Medicine and Pharmacy at the College of Medicine in Stockholm. This institution soon became the internationally known Karolinska Institut. The owner of the house in which he lived in Stockholm was a wealthy mine owner with an interest in mineralogy and chemistry. Together, he and Berzelius carried out many electrochemical studies on minerals.
      Early in his career, Berzelius had financial problems because his positions came with a very low salary. However, after the Professor of Medicine and Pharmacy in Stockholm died in 1807, Berzelius was appointed to the post and had a much better salary and access to an excellent laboratory. As a result, he was able to spend most of his time performing chemistry experiments.
      In 1808, he became a member of the Swedish Academy of Science and two years later became its president. He travelled abroad meeting the leading chemists of the day, including Humphry Davy (1778-1829) in London, as well as several prominent chemists in Germany. He subsequently spent a year in France where he worked with Claude Louis Berthollet (1748-1822) in Arcueil.
      Berzelius introduced a new system of nomenclature in which the composition of any chemical compound could be represented using the first one or two letters of the Latin names of elements, and superscripts to designate the number of atoms present. He also used dots above the letters to indicate the proportions. However, this representation was rejected by German colleagues, who instead replaced the superscripts with subscripts, and thereby created the system of chemical annotation that continues to be used today.
      Berzelius' 1819 publication of fixed proportions of chemical elements in compounds was supported by a large number of analytical results based on precise laboratory experiments. He reported the atomic weights of 45 of the 49 elements known at the time; 39 of the determinations were results of his own experiments, and the other 6 were performed by his students.
      Berzelius is credited with discovering the elements cerium, selenium, silicon, zirconium, titanium, and thorium. He introduced rubber tubing into the laboratory as well as filter paper for analytical chemistry. Laboratory glassware was made by utilizing the blowpipe. He also introduced the concept of catalysts and isomerism, as well as the terms “cystine” and “glycine.”
      Berzelius corresponded with many scientists in Europe, including Gerardus Mulder, a 35-year-old Dutch chemist with whom he carried out an extensive correspondence from 1834 to 1847. Mulder, in a letter to Berzelius dated July 10, 1838, said that he had discovered an oxidized basic radical in fibrin, serum, egg albumin, and gelatin. This substance could be combined in simple ratios with sulfur and phosphorous. Recognizing the importance of this observation, Berzelius suggested the term “protein,” which is derived from the Greek adjective πρώτειος, meaning “primary” or “of the first rank or position.” Mulder was also convinced of the importance of this substance, and published two lengthy papers (75 and 23 pages) in journals of which he was the editor.
      Berzelius also contributed to medical education in Sweden. He emphasized that large hospitals were necessary for a school of medicine to properly educate physicians. In fact, he stated that Stockholm was the only city in Sweden where a medical school could be maintained, because he felt that all other cities were too small to support a teaching hospital. He felt that practical medicine was learned by caring for patients rather than simply reading a textbook. He emphasized that although he was able to pass medical examinations after his own University training, he was not qualified to care for the sick.
      Berzelius suffered from many medical problems throughout his life. He had severe periodic headaches (probably migraines), which occurred regularly each month around the time of the new and full moon. The attacks disappeared in later life, but he then developed recurrent gout. He also had episodes of depression.
      He decided at the age of 56 that he should wed and have a home life. In 1835, he married Elisabeth Poppius, the 24-year-old daughter of a Swedish cabinet minister. Upon his marriage, the King of Sweden gave him the title of Baron. Although he had no children, domestic life eased his remaining years. Over time, he became more set in his ideas and refused to accept newer developments in chemistry. He spent less time in the laboratory and more of his time trying to discredit new ideas and theories. Nevertheless, along with Boyle, Lavoisier, and Dalton, Berzelius is often called a “Father of Chemistry” today.
      He died in Stockholm August 7, 1848. His birthday on August 20 is celebrated at Stockholm University as “Berzelius Day.” He was honored philatelically by Sweden in 1939 (Scott #293, #295 and #297) and again in 1979 (Scott #1279), and by Grenada in 1987 with a transliterated first name (Scott #1536).