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Mendeleyev, Dmitry Ivanovich, Mendeleyev also spelled MENDELEEV
(b. Feb. 8 [Jan. 27, Old Style], 1834, Tobolsk, Siberia, Russia--d.
Feb. 2 [Jan. 20], 1907, St. Petersburg), Russian chemist who developed
the periodic classification of the elements. In his final version
of the periodic table (1871) he left gaps, foretelling that they
would be filled by elements not then known and predicting the properties
of three of those elements.
Early life and education.
Mendeleyev was the 17th and last child of the director of the gymnasium
at Tobolsk. In the same year his father became blind, and, in order
to support the family, his mother leased and operated a glass factory
in a town 20 miles (32 km) away. At school Dmitry excelled in mathematics,
physics, and geography but fared badly in the compulsory classical
languages. In 1847 his father died, and the next year fire destroyed
the glass factory. Faced with these disasters, his mother made a
brave decision: she turned her back on Tobolsk and, with her only
two dependent children (Dmitry and his sister), set out for Moscow
to place her son in the university.
Notwithstanding her good connections, she could not prevail in the
face of the inflexible regulations that restricted admission according
to place of origin: Siberia was outside the academic pale. She pressed
on to St. Petersburg, but the university there, too, was closed
to her son. Dmitry was also refused admission to the medical school,
but, 10 weeks before her death, his mother finally secured him a
place in the Pedagogic Institute.
In 1855 he qualified as a teacher, winning a gold medal for his
academic achievements. On account of his health, he was posted,
at his own request, to the Crimea, where he continued his chemical
studies at Odessa; he returned to St. Petersburg in 1856 to obtain
an advanced degree in chemistry. In 1857 he received his first university
appointment. In 1859 the government sent him for further study to
the University of Heidelberg. Although Robert Bunsen, the chemist
and inventor, and the physicist Gustav Kirchhoff were then the dominant
figures in the natural sciences at Heidelberg, Mendeleyev preferred
to work independently. His study of molecular cohesion was begun
at this time, and while at Heidelberg he attended the celebrated
Karlsruhe conference (September 1860) and made valuable contacts
with French chemists and with the Italian chemist Stanislao Cannizzaro,
whose insistence on the distinction between molecular and atomic
weights influenced Mendeleyev considerably.
In 1861 Mendeleyev returned to St. Petersburg. The lack of a permanent
position led him to take up editing and scientific writing. In 1864
he became professor of chemistry at the Technical Institute, and
three years later he was made professor of general chemistry at
the university there. Since he could not find a textbook that met
his needs, he set about writing his own: the result was The Principles
of Chemistry (1868-70), a classic textbook.
Formulation of the periodic law.
In the course of writing the book, Mendeleyev probed deeply into
the relationship between the properties of elements in an attempt
to devise a system of classifying them. Other scientists had also
tried to construct such a system of classification. After the English
chemist and physicist John Dalton had developed the idea of atomic
weights, chemists sought arithmetic connections between them, partly
to see whether there was any likelihood of all elements being composed
of a simple, common substance and partly to see whether occasional
similarities in their properties pointed to similarities in structure.
Johann Döbereiner and William Odling, both of whom had also done
work with atomic weights, were the most prominent among the chemists
who attempted to devise a logical order for the elements. It was
Mendeleyev, however, who formulated the periodic law, according
to which, when all known elements are arranged in order of increasing
atomic weight, the resulting table shows a periodicity of properties
and allows one to observe the many types of chemical relation hitherto
studied only in isolation. The new system did not win wide acceptance
at first, its validity becoming apparent only with time. The table
of elements had gaps, but Mendeleyev predicted that they would be
filled by elements not yet discovered; three were discovered within
20 years, and they possessed the properties he had predicted. Gradually
the table became the framework for a great part of chemical theory
and proved to be most useful in the interpretation of the processes
of the natural transformation of one element into another, called
radioactive decay, more than 20 years after the table's conception.
Although Mendeleyev's textbooks ran to many editions in many languages,
the periodic theory remained his chief monument. Mendeleyev's mind,
however, was not limited to theory and to classroom teaching. He
was also by nature a practical man, aware of the necessity to use
science in solving the problems of the world. In 1865 he farmed
a small estate and improved the yield and quality of crops by the
application of his scientific knowledge, a measure he knew was essential
to the improvement of the general agricultural condition of Russia.
In 1867 he was sent to organize the Russian pavilion at the Paris
Exposition of that same year. His study of the French chemical industry
during his stay helped him improve the Russian soda industry, and,
later, he spent much time working on the problems of the Russian
petroleum industry. During a visit to the United States in 1876,
he criticized the manner in which American oil interests concentrated
on mere expansion of production without giving attention to scientific
improvements of either the efficiency of the industry or the quality
of its products. At home he was equally critical of the way Russian
oil was exploited by foreign interests, and he constantly urged
that Russia develop its own oil for its own profit. His interest
in aeronautics led him to make balloon ascents for scientific observation
and to encourage his colleagues to pursue the possibilities of heavier-than-air
Politically, Mendeleyev held progressive views and was much interested
in social reform. The tsarist regime did not approve of his political
views, and, although a man of his stature could not be suppressed,
he was often snubbed--as, for example, in 1880, when he was ostentatiously
refused advancement from corresponding to full membership of the
Imperial Academy of Sciences. In 1890 Mendeleyev's transmittal of
a request from students at the university for alleviation of unjust
conditions led to an open clash between him and the government.
For this allegedly improper action he was retired from the university.
He held no further major academic post. He was too useful, however,
to be left idle. In 1891 he was officially employed in setting up
a new system of import duties on heavy chemicals, and in 1893 he
headed the Bureau of Weights and Measures, a post he filled efficiently
until his death.
Mendeleyev's last years were saddened not only by declining health
but by the political events that preceded the Russian Revolution
of 1905. He had been greatly honoured by colleagues of many countries
as a guest lecturer and as an honorary member of academies. He was
recognized in his day as a leader of the movement to systematize
and make cohesive the study of chemistry. He is recognized now as
the discoverer of the interrelationship of chemical elements, which
not only underlies most of chemistry but also unifies a great deal
of modern physics. (F.Gre.)
The only substantial biography in English is Daniel Q. Posin, Mendeleyev:
The Story of a Great Scientist (1948), but it is also a fanciful
and romanticized version. Studies of Mendeleyev's scientific work
are included in J.R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, vol. 4,
ch. 26 (1964), which also gives biographical notes on and estimates
of the work of his principal contemporaries, with many references.