Chemist and Scientific Pioneer (1803 - 1873)

Anyone who has studied chemistry at school will have most likely heard of the Liebig Condenser. However, if you thought that inventing this useful piece of chemistry equipment was all Liebig ever achieved in his life, you'd be mistaken. In fact, it's just the tip of the iceberg!

The Little Boy Who Liked Explosions...
Justus von Liebig was born in Darmstadt, Germany on May 12th, 1803. His father dealt in supplies for painters and other related chemicals, which from the youngest age completely fascinated Justus. Although this would probably alarm most parents, envisaging a child consuming whatever substances passed within their reach, or perhaps even blowing themselves up by randomly mixing whatever compounds they could find. His parents simply kept an eye on him, seeming very tolerant of the little lad's interests, possibly believing he would grow out of them, then step into his father's shoes and continue the family business.

Although his school master called him “hopelessly useless”, the young Liebig was nevertheless undeterred in his interest in chemistry. The profession of “chemist” didn't even exist when he'd announced his wish to follow this as a career at the age of 14. His school instructor at the time simply laughed in his face, presuming that he'd meant alchemist instead.

It was during his childhood that Liebig had a chance encounter with a travelling peddler selling toys to the other children. These included small torpedos which were powered by fulminates (an easy-to-make explosive mixture). He easily recognised the chemicals used to create the "fuel" for the torpedos and promptly started producing it himself. It wasn't long before he had modified the mixture to improve its power, and his father even started selling these new and improved versions through his shop. No doubt this made him somewhat popular with his fellow school-friends.

This sort of extra-curricular activity worked against him in the educational system when he detonated some of his primitive explosives at school, leading him to be expelled from gym. His experiments continued at home, gradually increasing in power, until after not content with merely shaking the house, actually blew out the entire window of his bedroom into the street. His parent's patience, which had held out remarkably in the face of regular explosions in their house, had worn thin now. They found the open-minded owner of a local apothecary in Heppenheim and talked him into accepting the young lad as an apprentice, hoping to channel the exuberant intelligence of their son into non-explosive related areas of chemistry.

Within ten short months though, Liebig had learned all he could from the apothecary, and returned to his research into fulminates. After one particularly worrying explosion within the household, it was decided that it would be in everyone's interests if Liebig went to Heppenheim again for a short while till everyone's nerves had recovered. On his return he did reduce the amount of time spent on fulminate research, instead spending his spare time with study in the Duke's court library, which thankfully remained as quiet as a modern library, much to his parent's great relief.

Liebig Heads Into the World at Large
By 1820, Liebig was a young man, but his family's large size meant that they had no funds to continue with his educational costs. Luckily, the Hessian government helped him out with a grant, with which he was able to enter the University of Bonn. It was in this establishment that he made the acquaintance of Karl Wilhelm Kastner, a teacher and natural scientist, and whom persuaded him to travel with him to Erlangen the following year, promising to teach him chemical analysis.

When he finally got to work with Kastner however, he was dismayed to find that he had no knowledge of how to do a mineral analysis, being a student of the "old school", which took a spiritual, almost philosophical approach to chemistry, rather than a logical and scientific viewpoint. Experiment methodology was fairly lax to say the least. In this approach, experiments were rarely documented correctly and usually weren't reproducible to any great degree, which hampered getting any kind of useful results at every turning.

Continuing his own research didn't use up all of his time however, and he started a Natural Science Society, and became President. He was also involved with Korps Rhenania1 (Korps now are similar in some respects to US fraternities), in the capacity of treasurer. Korps at the time were usually highly political in nature and so hadn't endeared themselves to the government, who had made them illegal. When police stepped in during an confrontation between local townspeople and several Korps members, Liebig got into an argument with one of the officers and knocked off his hat. He was promptly arrested and spent three days in jail, under suspicion of revolutionary involvement, of which he was later acquitted.

Soon after, he managed to persuade the Grand Duke for a new grant to study in Paris. He became a student of Gay-Lussac, the famous French chemist, at the age of 20, gaining his doctorate in the process. Gay-Lussac was pivotal in opening Leibig's eyes to the possibilities that an improved research method could bring about. He also studied with Thénard, Chevreul, and Vauquelin, who all had their part to play in influencing the direction of Liebig's work.

With Thénard's endorsement he was granted access to a private laboratory, which although basic, gave him the resources he needed to display an indication of his knowledge. The accomplishments of his research were presented to the French Academy and soon after he became Professor of Chemistry at Giessen on May 24th, 1824, at the age of 21 - an extraordinary achievement at the time.

The Young Professor
It was most likely his youth which led to an initially inhospitable reception from his fellow faculty members at Giessen, but with the death of the existing chemistry professor, he had the opportunity to begin his teaching career in earnest. Using the knowledge he had gained from his own student days he developed a new way to teach chemistry to new students, who hadn't yet been entrenched in the old methods of learning chemistry. It must have been a very exciting time for Leibig and his students, keenly aware that they were creating something new, with the potential to bring about major changes in how chemistry and science in general were applied throughout the world.

Although the facilities for teaching his course were extremely basic, only a run-down barracks at first, Liebig inspired the incoming students who were eager to learn from him, gaining such a repuation as to draw attendees from not just Europe, but Great Britain and even the United States. The students were given a range of activities to accomplish - qualitative and quantitative analysis, preparation of various compounds, and project work. All in all, it wouldn't have seemed too different from many methods used today.

He spent most of his salary purchasing new equipment, and by 1827, he had an impressively equipped and well-organised research laboratory with twenty men working for him. When other chemists saw his laboratory they realised how it would accelerate and simplify their work, and had to copy it, just so that they wouldn't be left behind. It was the birth of research and development in the true sense of the words.

The key point to remember here was that previously this kind of laboratory didn't even exist - by structuring the research logically, and paying rigorous attention to consistency and scientific method, Liebig brought about a quantum leap in the way not just chemistry, but any kind of large-scale research could be carried out. It was this revolutionary advancement in thinking which was to pave the way for others like Thomas Edison, who as a result managed to produce huge amounts of inventions and discoveries via the means of a large, organised laboratory of assistants and fellow workers.

His Many Achievements...
He finished his book "Organic Chemistry and its Application to Agriculture and Physiology" in 1840, and followed it with "Organic Chemistry in its Application to Physiology and Pathology" in 1842. (Okay, not books with the sort of titles that would make most people want to pick them up, but they were exceedingly important when they were published.)

Both of these books brought about huge changes in the basic food production industries that existed at the time. Not all of Leibig's theories and ideas were correct or worked in practice, but the initial advancements in this area were sufficient to bring about a new momentum in thinking, and chemical principles were finally applied to agriculture. The development of mineral fertilizers doubled possible food production, without which the world's population would have been curbed severely. He was a forward-looker in his use of such ideas too, cautioning that these fertilizers be used sparingly, only as much as was required, and stressed the concept of recycling these nutrients throughout the environment, rather than mining fresh resources.

Liebig continued his teaching and one day in 1843, a former student sent him an oil which he'd isolated from coal tar. It was found that a particular compound within this oil reacted when mixed with nitric acid to produce bright blue, yellow and red colouring agents. This substance had already been predicted by Liebig's research, being a benzene compound that was missing a hydrogen atom, which was exchanged for an amino group. This compound became known as aniline.

In 1845, he was made a Baron as a reward for his contributions to society. His reputation became such that he was invited to become Professor of Chemistry at the University of Munich in 1853, a post which he accepted, leaving Giessen after nearly twenty years of teaching there.

By 1860 Germany had revamped its dye industry, the catalyst having been the discovery of aniline, although many new dying agents and techniques had been developed soon afterwards. It was this dye industry that was fundamental in turning Germany into the world leader in chemistry on an industrial scale. Most of this was not so much due to the findings that the Leibig's research had brought about, but mainly by the fact that there was this kind of research going on at all.

By the time of his death on April 18th, 1873, Liebig had written more than two hundred papers, was responsible for major developments in organic, pharmacological, and agricultural chemistry, and left a legacy of work which was to exert an influence which can be seen right up to present times. Even today, the Liebig Institute preserves the original rooms that Liebig worked and taught in, and they have remained virtually unchanged for nearly 150 years, making them one of the most important chemistry museums in the world.

1 - According to the Korps Rhenania's own homepage, they were formed in 1872, a year before Liebig's death. They also proclaim themselves to be non-political in nature. Their organisation was dissolved by the National Socialist government before being reformed in the 1950s, so it's quite possible that another organisation with the same name existed previously.


Last updated : 28th January, 2003

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