Skip to main content
Select Source:

Lomonosov, Mikhail Vasilievich

Lomonosov, Mikhail Vasilievich

(b. M ish-aninskaya, Arkhangelsk province, Russia, 19 November 1711;d, St. Petersburg, Russia, 15 April 1765)

chemistry, physics, metallurgy, optics.

Lomonosov’s father, Vasily Dorofeevich, owned several fishing and cargo ships; his mother, Elena Ivanovna Sivkova, was the daughter of a deacon. A gifted child, Lomonosov learned to read and write at an early age, and by the time he was fourteen was studying M. Smotritsky’s Slavonic grammar and Magnitsky’s arithmetic (which also dealt with other sciences and with technology).

In December 1730 Lomonosov received permission from local authorities to go to Moscow, where he entered the Slavonic, Greek, and Latin Academy the following month. He displayed brilliant linguistic abilities and soon became an accomplished Latinist. Jn 1734 he went to Kiev to work in the archives of the Religious Academy; he then returned to Moscow. At the beginning of 1736 he was sent, as one of the Moscow Academy’s best pupils, to study at the University of St. Petersburg; and in the fall of that year he went to the University of Marburg, where he studied for three years with Christian Wolff. Lomonosov and Wolff respected each other’s abilities but held few scientific views in common, although in 1745 Lomonosov did do a translation of Wolff’s work on physics into Russian, That book attempted to combine the views of Newton with the ideas of Leibniz and Descartes and to reconcile the continuous ether with atomic theory. From Wolff, however, Lomonosov acquired a schematic style of scientific descripti-served him throughout his life.

At Marburg, Lomonosov also studied the humanities, on his own initiative. His studies abroad were in general oriented toward mathematics and chemistry (which he studied with Duising), mining, natural history, physics, mechanics, hydraulics, and hydro-technics. In the summer of 1739 he traveled to Freiburg to study with Johann Henckel, a specialist in mining. Henckel was an Aristotelian and an opponent of the mechanistic interpretation of chemical phenomena that Lomonosov, for his part, always supported. The teacher and his new student differed sharply, and Lomonosov soon departed, having nevertheless acquired in less than a year much knowledge of mineralogy and metallurgy. By the spring of 1740 Lomonosov was traveling extensively in Germany and Holland. Later that year, in Marburg, he married Elizabeth Zilch; their daughter Elena was born in 1749. In 1741 Lomonosov returned with his wife to St. Petersburg, where he spent the rest of his life.

Lomonosov’s two chief interests, poetry and science, had already come to the fore in the course of his foreign studies. In 1739 he composed an ode on the Russian capture of the Turkish fortress of Khotin, to which he appended theoretical considerations on the reform of Russian versification. In two student dissertations in physics (1738–1739), “On the Transformation of a Solid Body Into a Liquid” and “On Distinguishing Mixed Bodies That Consist of Chains of Corpuscles,” Lomonosov established the basis of his future atomic-kinetic conceptions. “Corpuscles are different,” he wrote, “if they are distinguished by mass or by figure, or by both at the same time.” In 1756 he recalled, “From the time when I read Boyle 1 had a fervent desire to study the smallest particles. I reflected on them for eighteen years.” While in Marburg he had also developed the idea of applying algebra to theoretical chemistry and physics, a notion that he began to implement on his return to St, Petersburg. A fully mature scientist, he had turned completely from theology and ancient languages to the natural sciences and technology, and to the Russian language and its poetry. His subsequent life and career may be divided into three distinct stages.

Theoretical Physics (1741–1748). At the beginning of 1742 Lomonosov was named adjunct of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in the class of physics, in which post he remained for three and a half years. He was commissioned to compile a catalog of minerals and fossils, which was followed by “First Principles of Mining Science.” His first independent scientific work, “Elements of Mathematical Chemistry,” is marked by bold hypotheses and speculations. Defending the unity of theory and experiment, he wrote that “A true chemist must be both a theorist and a practical worker … as well as a philosopher.” His notion of the difference between a compound, which is composed of corpuscles, and an element, has been said to resemble the laws of definite and multiple proportion later established in chemistry. The hypothetical nature of Lomonosov’s approach to the physical sciences was further conditioned by the circumstances of his time: in the mid-eighteenth century experimental data on the quantitative chemical composition of various substances were not sufficient for testing his suppositions. Thus he was obliged to proceed on the basis of hypothesis.

In the period 1741–1743 he outlined the topics of his future research, compiling 276 notes on physics and corpuscular philosophy. They include his observations that

When it is warm sound is more intense than when it is cold because the corpuscles move faster and strike each other more forcefully. … We must not think of many reasons when one is sufficient; thus corpuscular motion suffices to explain heat… there is no need to look for other reasons …. Nature strongly adheres to her laws and is everywhere the same…. The continuous formation and destruction of bodies speaks sufficiently for corpuscular motion.

Other notes have an ethical character and reflect his scientific outlook: “I will not attack for their errors people who have served the republic of science; rather, I will try to use their good thoughts for useful work.”

In 1743–1744 he developed an atomic theory in a series of papers: “On the Intangible Physical Particles That Constitute Natural Substances,” “On the Adhesion of Corpuscles,” “On the Adhesion and Position of Physical Monads,” and “On the Intangible Physical Particles That Constitute Natural Substances, in Which Substances the Sufficient Basis for Specific Qualities is Contained.” His theory of matter, which was atomistic in principle, was further developed in his “On the Weight of Bodies” (1748), in which he imagined a materialistic monadoJogy to oppose Leibniz’ idealistic picture. Lomonosov’s monads were corporeal rather than spiritual, having form, weight, and volume; and he employed them to explain the nature of heat and the elasticity of gases.

In 1745 Lomonosov read his paper “Reflections on the Reason for Heat and Cold” to the St. Petersburg Academy. He considered it to be one of his most important works for its argument against phlogiston in particular and against the theory of weightless fluids in general. He explained heat in terms of the velocity of motion (rotation) of material particles. Cold was a diminution of motion, and with the full cessation of particle motion the greatest degree of cold was achieved. In “Attempt at a Theory of Elasticity of the Air“(1748) Lomonosov considered the nature of heat more fully. Inasmuch as the particles themselves occupy a certain volume of space, he predicted a deviation from Boyle’s law in air subjected to very great pressure. In a letter to Euler of 5 July 1748 Lomonosov set down the general law to which these researches had led him: “All changes that we encounter in nature proceed so that… however much matter is added to any body, as much is taken away from another … since this is the general law of nature, it is also found in the rules of motion,”

Continuing Boyle’s line of thought, Lomonosov based his theory of heat on the mechanical action of bodies in contact, rather than upon the dynamics of Newtonian forces. (For this reason the external form of the material monad is important.) But Lomonosov employed corpuscular mechanics in chemical explanations more extensively than Boyle had done. Treating chemical compounds as particles in adhesion, he held that “adhesion is eliminated and renewed by means of motion.., since no change in a body can take place without motion.” He attempted to apply these theories to chemical phenomena—although he was limited to speculation—in papers on the action of chemical solvents in general (read in 1745) and on “metallic brilliance.”

Lomonosov’s work during this first period was not, however, confined to the physical sciences. In 1744 he described a comet that had appeared that year and, until 1748, he kept a record of the phenomena of thunderstorms. He wrote on electrical experiments in 1745—a subject to which he was to return—and in 1746 sought a method for measuring temperature at the bottom of a frozen sea. Returning to his miner-alogical studies, he published a memoir on the wave motion of air observed in mines and conducted chemical analyses of salts, ores, and other rocks sent to the St. Petersburg Academy. He also compiled a syllabus of lectures on physics to be delivered in Russian and, in the summer of 1746, gave the first public lecture on that subject ever to be presented in that language.

Meanwhile, Lomonosov continued to combine science with poetry. In 1743 he wrote two major philosophical poems, “Morning Reflection on the Greatness of God” and “Evening Reflection on the Greatness of God on the Occasion of the Great Northern Lights.” In the latter he asked, “What is the ray that surges through the clear night? What is the fine flame that strikes the firmament? … How is it possible that the frozen vapor of winter engendered fire?” He competed with the poets Tretyakovsky and Sumarokov in translating a Biblical psalm into Russian and composed a brief guide to rhetoric. In an ode on “The Delight of Earthly Kings and Kingdoms” (17410 he glorified science and the peaceful flowering of Russia. Addressing a patriotic challenge to youth, he summoned them “to show that the Russian land can give birth to its own Platos and quick-witted Newtons,”

Despite these accomplishments, Lomonosov became embroiled in a number of heated disputes within the Academy. In 1743 he was arrested and imprisoned for eight months as a result of these encounters with Academy bureaucrats, led by Schumacher, whose interests were far removed from science. Nevertheless, in 1745 he was named professor of chemistry at the Academy. In 1747 Schumacher, hoping for an unfavorable review, sent a copy of Lomonosov’s works to Euler; but his malice was rewarded by Eider’s complete approval of Lomonosov’s “Reflections on the Reason for Heat and Cold.” The explanations of physical and chemical problems were so sound, Euler stated, that he was fully convinced of the accuracy of Lomonosov’s proofs. Euler greeted with equal enthusiasm other works of Lomonosov that were sent to him from the Academy. It was largely through Euler’s good opinion that the pioneering nature of Lomonosov’s work was first recognized by that body. All the works that Lomonosov presented for publication were included in the first volume of the Academy’s Novye kommentarii (“New Commentaries”), issued in 1748.

Experimental Chemistry (1748–1757). On assuming his duties as professor of chemistry, Lomonosov began to plan the construction of the first scientific chemical laboratory in Russia, which was opened in October 1748. Its equipment included balances, so that quantitative methods could be introduced into chemistry and the general law of conservation proven experimentally. Although Lomonosov did not completely suspend work in theoretical physics, he began to turn his interest to the experimental chemistry that he was just learning to do. His first chemical work, on the origin and nature of saltpeter (1749), presents the results of laboratory experiments together with theoretical speculation on the nature of mixed bodies (chemical compounds) and of chemical affinity. The latter were based on Lomonosov’s kinetic interpretation of heat. In a paper on the usefulness of chemistry read to the Academy in 1751, he spoke of the problems of chemistry and of training chemists, noting that the discipline “requires a highly skilled practical worker and a profound mathematician in the same person.“Thus, Lomonosov worked toward elevating chemistry to the level of a genuine theoretical, rather than a purely empirical, science. Pointing to the practical importance of chemistry, he challenged the dogma that useful minerals—especially precious metals in rocks—do not exist in northern countries.

In 1752 Lomonosov implemented his ideas on the training of chemists by drawing up a program of instruction in physical chemistry designed for young students. In an introductory note he wrote, “The study of chemistry has a dual purpose: advancing the natural sciences and improving the general welfare.” He later set forth in detail the theoretical and empirical aspects of this science, considering that physical chemistry explains “on the basis of the ideas and experiments of physics what takes place in mixed bodies under chemical operations.”

Lomonosov’s surviving laboratory notes and journals testify to the number and variety of experiments that he himself performed. In his journal for 1751, for example, he reported on the results of seventy-four reagents and on their mutual interactions with various solvents, on his experiments on the production of glass, on his work with various powders, and on his investigations of a large number of chemical reactions. From 1752 to 1756 he took notes on physical-chemical experiments with salts and liquids and on the freezing (crystallization) of liquids. In 1756, following up Boyle’s experiments on the heating of metals in closed containers, he found that when air is not admitted into the vessel, the total weight of the vessel and its contents remains constant—another confirmation of the general law of conservation as it applies to the total weight of chemically reacting substances. “My chemistry,” he wrote in the same year, “is physical.”

Lomonosov returned to the study of electrical phenomena in 1753, when he resumed experiments on atmospheric electricity. With G. V, Richmann he attempted to discover methods of conducting lightning and wrote “A Word on Atmospheric Phenomena Proceeding From Electrical Force,” Richmann was killed while conducting experiments during a thunderstorm, but Lomonosov continued his researches and drew up a syllabus for further study. In 1756 he compiled 127 notes on the theory of light and electricity, presented a mathematical theory of electricity, and read a paper on the origin of light and on a new theory of colors that constitute it to a public meeting of the Academy. His reflections on the relation between mass and weight (1757) led him to the idea that another concept of measurement, perhaps that of weight, should be introduced as an expression of mass.

Lomonosov was also busy with practical projects. Having undertaken research on the production of glass, he turned to the revival of mosaic as an art form. In 1752 he presented a work on this subject to Czarina Elizabeth and introduced into the Duma a proposal to establish mosaic factories in Russia. In the same year he wrote a poem on the usefulness of glass, in which he contrasted glass and objects made of it with man’s lust for gold. In 1753 Lomonosov received permission to build factories “for making varicolored glass and beads” and was given an estate near Moscow for this purpose. He built a mosaic workshop, with an attached chemical and optical laboratory, In St. Petersburg in 1756 and between 1761 and 1764 designed a large mosaic mural, The Battle of Poltava. Executed after his death, it is now in the Academy of Sciences in Leningrad. In 1754 he demonstrated at the St. Petersburg Academy a model of an “aerodrome machine” that he had invented and sent to L L Shuvalov his project for creating a university in Moscow, which was opened at the beginning of 1755.

During this period Lomonosov was especially active in history, philosophy, and literature. He presented a severe criticism of the historian G. Miller’s “Norman theory” of the origin of Russia. In 1750 his dramatic tragedy, Tamira and Selim, was presented in St. Petersburg, and the following year an edition of his collected poems and prose works was published by the Academy of Sciences. His Russian grammar (1755–1757) was an important reform of the Russian language.

Lomonosov’s Wide Practical Interests (1757–1765). At the beginning of 1757 Lomonosov was named member of the academic chancellery and, a year later, head of the geographical department of the St. Petersburg Academy. Occupied in scientific administration, he was less able to devote attention to physics and chemistry. Although his energies were drawn increasingly to practical matters, his surviving chemical and optical notes indicate that he nevertheless continued to do a considerable amount of pure research. In a paper on the hardness and fluidity of bodies (1760) he once again stated the general law of the conservation of matter and motion.

During the late I750’s Lomonosov became interested in exploration and, extending his earlier work on mining and metallurgy, in the exploitation of Russia’s natural resources. Between 1757 and 1763 he wrote three works on mining and metallurgy; “Metals and minerals are not found lying on the doorstep,” he stated in one of them. “Eyes and hands must search for them.”. Interested in navigation, especially of the northern seas, in 1759 he invented a number of instruments for astronomy and navigation, including a self-recording compass, and reflected on the precise determination of a ship’s route. In 1761 he communicated to the Swedish Academy of Sciences a paper on the origin of icebergs in the northern seas and, two years later, described various voyages in the northern seas and discussed a possible approach to East India through the Siberian Sea. These works contain the first classification of ice and introduced the ideas of fossil ice and the presence of a huge ice drift.

As head of the geography department of the Academy, Lomonosov attempted to serve the general national interest. In addition to his works on exploiting natural resources, in 1761 he wrote Shuvalov a letter “on the propagation and preservation of the Russian people,” in which he considered a broad range of social, economic, and political problems.

Lomonosov’s works in literature and linguistics during the last period of his life include a foreword on the usefulness of church books, in the first volume of his collected works, published in 1758 by Moscow University. In it he opposed the current tendency to restore Church Slavonic and established the basis for a Russian scientific language in which the literary idiom approached the vernacular. In 1759–1760 he compiled a brief Russian chronicle with genealogy, wrote a memoir on the need for reforming the Academy, and began a heroic poem on Peter the Great. In 1761 all academic institutions in his region were entrusted to his sole management. His ideas for a pictorial map of Russian history were set forth in 1764.

Lomonosov was elected an honorary member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences (1760), the St. Peters-burg Academy of Arts (1763), and a member of the Bologna Academy of Sciences (1764). His strong-willed and independent character created continuing difficulties with the czarist government; and in 1763 the czarina, having granted him the rank of state councillor, ordered his retirement. Several days later she herself rescinded the order.

Shortly before his death Lomonosov intended to produce two major generalizing philosophical works that would embody the whole of his atomic-kinetic principles and would illuminate his concept of the unity of nature. The works, to have been entitled ’’System of All Physics” and “Micrology,” survive in outline notes and in theses that include

Forces are miracles of harmony, a harmonious structure of causes…. The harmony and concord of nature..,. The voice of nature everywhere in tune. … Unanimity and assent. … The concord of all causes is the most constant law of nature... Everything is linked by a common force and the concord of nature.

The theses also reflect Lomonosov’s ethical character, and many are autobiographical. Death prevented him from carrying out this projected work.

Lomonosov’s last years were marred by illness. He appeared at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences for the last time early in 1765 and died a few months later. He was buried at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

Unique in the history of Russian culture and science, Lomonosov had an encyclopedic education. The first great Russian scientist, he united in himself knowledge not only of every basic area of the science of his time but of history, languages, poetry, literary prose, and art. His outlook on natural science and philosophy was frequently presented in verse. He was a distinguished teacher and social reformer, an enlightened humanist who worked t6 develop his country’s productive forces. Pushpin called him Russia’s first university. His scientific creativity consisted especially in his theoretical union of two basic concepts—the atomic (recognition of the discrete structure of matter) and the kinetic (recognition that particles of matter are endowed with motion). It was by basing this theory on the most general concept of the law of conservation of matter and motion that Lomonosov demonstrated experimentally the conservation of matter. A number of predictions in physics and chemistry derived from the combination of these three concepts were not verified until many years after his death.

Lomonosov was described as having “a cheerful temperament, [he] spoke tersely and wittily and loved to use pointed remarks in conversation; he was faithful to his country and friends, protected and encouraged novices in the literary arts; his manner was, for the most part, gentle but was passionate and hot-tempered withal”

Lomonosov was long considered to have been primarily a poet and man of letters, and little was known of his scientific works, which remained in manuscript. At the beginning of the twentieth century, B. N. Menshutkin discovered a great quantity of his unpublished material in the archives of the Academy of Sciences. Their publication revealed Lomonosov’s importance as a physicist and chemist to the scientists of our time.


I. Original Works. Lomonosov’s complete works were published by the Soviet Academy of Sciences, under the general editorship of S. I. Vavilov, as Polnoe sobranie sochineny, 10 vols. (Moscow-Leningrad, 1950–1959). Anearlier, 8–vol. ed. of his collected works, Sobranie sochineny (Moscow-Leningrad, 1934–1948), includes his poetry ; works on linguistics and literature; articles on the natural sciences, physics, optics, chemistry, astronomy, and metallurgy; and his correspondence

Important translations of his works (listed in chronological order) are Physikalisch-cheinische Abhandlungen, Ostwalds Klassiker der Exacten Wissenschaften no. 178 (Leipzig, 1910), with works dating from 1741 to 1752; Ausgewahlte Schriften, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1961), with works on natural science, history, and linguistics and collected letters; and Michail Vasilievitch Lomonosov on the Corpuscular Theory, trans. and with ntro i. by Henry M. Leicester (Cambridge, Mass., 1970).

11. Secondary Literature. It is impossible here to offer more than a brief indication of the vast literature on Lomonosov and various aspects of his career. The following works, therefore, listed chronologically within each subheading, represent only a small portion of existing nineteenth-and twentieth-century sources in Russian and other languages.

Biographies. See V. I. Lamansky, Lomonosov (St. Petersburg, 1864); V. 1. Pokrovsky, Mikhail Vasilievich Lonno-nosov (Moscow, 1905); M. de Lur-Saluces, Lomonossoff. Le prodigieux moujik (Paris, 1933); G. Shtorm, Lomonosov (Moscow, 1933) ;J. D.Bernal, “M. V. Lomonosov” in Nature, no. 3688 (1940), 16–17; B. N. Menshutkin, Zhizneopisanie Mikhaila Vasilievicha Lomonosova (Moscow-Leningrad, 1947), the app. by L. B. Modzalevsky is a biographical guide to the basic literature on Lomonosov’s life and work; and Russia’s Lomonosov, Chemist, Courtier, Physicist, Poet (Princeton, 1952); A. A. Morosov, M. W. Lomonosov (Berlin, 1954); and Mikhail Vasilievich Loino-nosov (Moscow, 1955), with bibliography, pp. 909–924; S. I. Vavilov, Mikhail Vasilievich Lomonosov (Moscow, 1961), a collection of articles and lectures see esp.“Zakon Lomonosova” (“Lomonosov’s Law”); G. S. Vasetsky, Mirovozzrenie M. V. Lomonosova (Moscow, 1961), on his world view; G. T. Korovin, Biblioteka Lomonosova (Moscow-Leningrad, 1961), with a catalog of Lomonosov’s personal library; B. G. Kuznetsov, Tvor-chesky put Lomonosova (“Lomonosov’s Creative Path”; Moscow, 1961); G. E. Pavlova, ed., Lomonosou u uospominaniakh i kharakteristikakh sovremennikov (“Lomonosov Recalled and Described by His Contemporaries”; Moscow-Leningrad, 1962); L. Langevin, Lomonosov, sa vie, son oeuvre (Paris, 1967); and G. Vasetsky, Lonnonosov’s Philosophy (Moscow, 1968).

Loinonosov and the Academy of Sciences.Recent works include G. A. Knyazev, ed.,Rukopisi Lonionosova v Aka-demii nauk SSSR (“Lomonosov’s Manuscripts at the Soviet Academy of Sciences”; Moscow-Leningrad, 1937); V. F. Gnucheva, Geografnchesky departament Akademii nauk (“The Geography Section of the Academy of Sciences”; Moscow-Leningrad, 1946), pp. 66–86, 178–199; M. 1. Radovsky, Lomonosov i Peterburgskaya Akademia nauk(“Lomonosov and the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences”; Moscow-Leningrad, 1961); and E. S. Kule-byako, Lomonosov i uchebnaya deyatelnost Peterburgskoy Akademii nauk (“Lomonosov and the Educational Activity of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences”; Moscow-Leningrad, 1962).

Lonionosov as Physicist, Chemist, and Astronomer. Useful sources on particular aspects of Lomonosov’s career include B. N. Menshutkin, Trudy Lomonosova po fizike i khimii (“Lomonosov’s Works on Physics and Chemistry”; Moscow-Leningrad, 1936); B.E. Raykov, Ocherki po istorii geliotsentricheskogo mirovozzrenia u Rossii (“Sketches in the History of the Heliocentric View in Russia”; Moscow-Leningrad, 1947); P. G. Kulikovsky, Lomonosou astronom i astrofizik (“Lomonosov Astronomer and Astrophysicist” Moscow, 1961); N. M. Raskin, khirnicheskaya-laboratoria Lomonosoua (“Lomonosov’s Chemistry Laboratory”; Moscow-Leningrad, 1962); and B. M. Kedrov, Tri aspekta atomistiki, 11, Uchenie Daltona (“Three Aspects of Atomic Theory, II, Dalton’s Theory”; Moscow, 1969), see pp. 178–200 for Lomonosov’s discoveries of the law of conservation of matter, pp. 219–263 on his atomic-kinetic conceptions, and app. , pp. 269–274, 290–292.

Other Aspects. On Lomonosov’s other scientific and literary activity, see K. S. Aksakov, Lonionosou u istorii russkoy literatury i russkogo yazyka (“Lomonosov in the History of Russian Literature and the Russian Language” Moscow, 1846); V. I. Vernadsky, O znachenii trudov Lomonosoua u mineralogii i geologii (“The Significance of Lomonosov’s Work in Mineralogy and Geology”; Moscow, 1900); A. P. Pavlov, Znachenie Lomonosoua u istorii pochvovedenia (“Lomonosov’s Importance in the History of Soil Science”; Moscow, 1911); P. N. Berkov, Lomonosou i literaturnaya polemika ego vremeni, 1750–1765 (“Lomonosov and the Literary Polemic of His Time”; Moscow-Leningrad, 1936); V. P. Lystsov, Loinonosou o sotsialno-ekononnicheskom razvitii Rossii (“Lomonosov on the Social and Economic Development of Russia”; Voronezh, 1939); M. A. Bezborodov, Lonionosov i ego rabota po khimii i tekhnologii stekla (“Lomonosov and His Work in the Chemistry and Technology of Glass”; Moscow-Leningrad, 1948), published on the 200th anniversary of the founding of the first scientific chemical laboratory in Russia; V. A. Perevalov, Lomonosou i arktika (“Lomo-nosov and the Arctic”; Moscow-Leningrad, 1949); S. I. Volfkovich and V. V. Kozlov, Tekhnicheskaya khimia v tvorchestve Lomonosoua (“Technical Chemistry in Lomonosov’s Creative Work”; Moscow, 1961), with bibliography, pp. 75–81; and P. N. BerkoN et al. , eds., Literaturnoe tvorchestvo Lomonosoua. Issledovania i materialy (“Lomonosov’s Creative Literary Works. Studies and Material”; Moscow-Leningrad, 1962).

Collections. Collected material on Lomonosou’s life and activity include Lomonosousky sbornik (“Lomonosov Collection”; St. Petersburg, 1911); N. A. Golubtsova, ed., Lomonovsky sbornik (Arkhangelsk, 1911); and A. I. Andreyev, L. B. Modzelevsky, S. I. Vavilov, V. L. Chenakal, et al. ,eds., Lomonosou. Sbornik state y i materialou (“Lomonosov. A Collection of Articles and Materials”), 6 vols. (Moscow-Leningrad, 1940–1965).

B. M. Kedrov

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lomonosov, Mikhail Vasilievich." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . 24 Jul. 2017 <>.

"Lomonosov, Mikhail Vasilievich." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . (July 24, 2017).

"Lomonosov, Mikhail Vasilievich." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved July 24, 2017 from

Lomonosov, Mikhail Vasilievich


(17111765), chemist, physicist, poet.

Mikhail Lomonosov was born in a small coastal village near Arkhangelsk. His father was a prosperous fisherman and trader. At age nineteen Lomonosov enrolled in the Slavic-Greek-Latin Academy in Moscow, a religious institution where he learned Latin and was exposed to Aristotelian philosophy and logic. In 1736 he was one of sixteen students selected to continue their studies at the newly established secular university at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Immediately the Academy sent him to Marburg University in Germany to study the physical sciences under the guidance of Christian Wolff, famous for his versatile interest in the links between physics and philosophy. He also spent some time in Freiberg, where he studied mining techniques. He sent several scientific papers to St. Petersburg. After five years in Germany, he returned to St. Petersburg and began immediately to present papers on physical and chemical themes. In 1745 he was elected full professor at the Academy.

Lomonosov drew admiring attention not only as "the father of Russian science" but also as a major modernizer of national poetry. He introduced the living word as the vehicle of poetic expression. According to Vissarion Belinsky, who wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century: "His language is pure and noble, his style is precise and powerful, and his verse is full of glitter and soaring spirit." According to Evelyn Bristol: "Lomonosov created a body of verse whose excellence was unprecedented in his own language."

Lomonosov's work in science was of an encyclopedic scope; he was actively engaged in physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, meteorology, and navigation. He also contributed to population studies, political economy, Russian history, rhetoric, and

grammar. He brought the most advanced scientific theories to Russia, commented on their strengths and weaknesses, and advanced original ideas. He sided with Newton's atomistic views on the structure of matter; questioned the existence of the heat-generating caloric, a popular crutch of eighteenth-century science; and endorsed and commented on Huygens's clearly manifested inclination toward the wave theory of light. He raised the question of the scientific validity of the notion of instantaneous action at a distance that was built into Newton's notion of universal gravitation, conducted experimental research in atmospheric electricity, made the first steps toward the formulation of conservation laws, suggested a historical orientation in the study of the terrestrial strata, and claimed the presence of atmosphere at the planet Venus. In the judgment of Henry M. Leicester, Lomonosov's scientific papers revealed "a remarkable originality and ability to follow his theories to their logical ends, even though his conclusions were sometimes erroneous."

In a series of odes, Lomonosov combined his poetic gifts with his scientific engagement to produce scientific poetry. These odes dealt with scientific themes and were dedicated to the popularization of rationalist methods in obtaining socially valuable knowledge. "A Letter on the Uses of Glass," one such ode, relied on rich and poignant metaphors to portray the invincible power of scientific ideas of the kind advanced by Kepler, Huygens, and Newton. This poem, an ode in praise of the scientific world outlook, is the first Russian literary work to hail Copernicus's heliocentrism.

The appearance of Lomonosov's papers on physical and chemical themes in the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences journal Novy Kommentary (New Commentary ) during the 1750s marked the beginning of a new epoch in Russia's cultural history. They were the first publications of scientific papers by a native Russian scholar to appear in the same journal with contributions by established naturalists and mathematicians of Western origin and training. The papers, presented in Latin, dealt with major scientific problems of the day and were noticed by reviewers in Western scholarly journals.

Few of his Russian contemporaries understood the intellectual and social significance of Lomonosov's achievements in science and of his enthusiastic advocacy of Baconian views on science as the commanding source of social progress. His relations with the members of the St. Petersburg Academy and with distinguished members of the literary community were punctuated by stormy conflicts, personal and professional. He showed a tendency to magnify the animosity, overt or latent, of German academicians toward Russian personnel and Russia's cultural environment. Particularly noted were his outbursts against G. F. Müller, A. L. Schlozer, and G. Z. Bayer, the founders of the Norman theory of the origin of the Russian state. On one occasion, he was sent to jail as a result of complaints by foreign colleagues regarding his abusive language at scientific sessions of the Academy. In the face of mounting complaints about his behavior, Catherine II signed a decree in 1763 forcing Lomonosov to retire; however, before the Senate could ratify the decree, the empress changed her mind. Part of Lomonosov's obstinacy stemmed from his desire to see increased Russian representation in the administration of the Academy. In fairness to Lomonosov, it must be noted that he had high respect for and maintained cordial relations with most German members of the Academy.

Lomonosov went through a series of skirmishes with theologians who protected the irrevocability of canonized belief from the challenges launched by science, and even wrote a hymn lampooning the theologians who stood in the way of scientific progress. While attacking theological zealots, he never deviated from a candid respect for religionand he never alienated himself from the church. Small wonder, then, that two archimandrites and a long line of priests officiated at his burial rites. After his death, the church recognized him as one of Russia's premier citizens, and many learned theologians took an active part in building the symbolism of the Lomonosov legend.

In his time, and shortly after his death, Lomonosov was known almost exclusively as a poet; only isolated contemporaries grasped the intellectual and social significance of his achievements in science. A good part of his main scientific manuscripts languished in the archives of the St. Petersburg Academy until the beginning of the twentieth century. Lomonosov was known for having made little effort to communicate with Russian scientists in and outside the Academy. On his death, a commemorative session was attended by eight members of the Academy, who heard a short encomium delivered by Nicholas Gabriel de Clerc, a French doctor of medicine, writer on Russian history, newly elected honorary member of the Academy, and personal physician of Kirill Razumovsky, president of the Academy. While de Clerc praised Lomonosov effusively, he barely mentioned his work in science.

See also: academy of arts; academy of sciences; education; enlightenment, impact of; slavic-greek-latin academy


Leicester, Henry M. (1976). Lomonosov and the Corpuscular Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Menshutkin, B. N. (1952). Russia's Lomonosov, Chemist, Courtier, Physicist, Poet, tr. I. E. Thal and E. J. Webster, Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press.

Pavlova, G. E., and Fedorov, A. S. (1984). Mikhail Vasil'evich Lomonasov: His Life and Work, Moscow: Mir.

Alexander Vucinich

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lomonosov, Mikhail Vasilievich." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . 24 Jul. 2017 <>.

"Lomonosov, Mikhail Vasilievich." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . (July 24, 2017).

"Lomonosov, Mikhail Vasilievich." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Retrieved July 24, 2017 from