Vernadsky, Vladímir Ivanovich (1862 – 1945) Russian Mineralogist, Geochemist, and Biochemist
Vladímir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1862 – 1945)
Russian mineralogist, geochemist, and biochemist
Vernadsky was born on March 12, 1863, in St. Petersburg, Russia. His father, Ivan, was a professor of political economy and edited a liberal journal that barely escaped the Tsarist regime's censorship. Vernadsky's mother, Anna Petrovna Konstantinovich, was a teacher of singing who was neither as intellectual nor as politically inclined as her husband. When Vernadsky was five, the family moved to the more provincial town of Kharkov, where he received an introduction to nature and astronomy from his uncle. At the age of 13, Vernadsky moved with his family back to St. Petersburg, where he attended a classical gymnasium. Because a classical Russian education in this era did not include the sciences, Vernadsky and his friends were forced to form a study group of their own.
In 1881 Vernadsky entered the physics and math departments at St. Petersburg University. Although it was the custom for men of his class to study abroad, Vernadsky remained close to home to help care for his father, who had suffered a stroke the previous spring. At St. Petersburg, Vernadsky studied with Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev, who derived the periodic table of the elements, chemist Aleksandr Butlerov, and mineralogist V. V. Dokuchaev. He published two scientific articles during his undergraduate years, one on mineral analysis and the other on the prairie rodent. Vernadsky's undergraduate thesis on isomorphism so impressed his professors that they urged him to pursue an academic career. That same year he joined an underground committee on literacy, which wrote and distributed reading materials for the common people. Through the committee, Vernadsky met Natalia Egorovna Staritskaya. The two began dating, and when Vernadsky was appointed curator of the university's mineralogical collection in 1886, they were married.
Vernadsky was not to enjoy the peaceful existence of the newlywed for long. Russia in the late 1880s was in turmoil and few places were more tumultuous than the university campuses. After a group of students there were found guilty of a plot to kill Alexander III, the Tsarist government considered St. Petersburg University a hotbed of radicalism. Administrators at the state-run university targeted students and faculty suspected of rebellious feelings towards the autocracy. The 25-year-old Vernadsky was among the suspects, not because of any radical activities but because of his decision not to study abroad, a decision which, according to administrators, branded him an avowed rabble-rouser. Vernadsky's father-in-law, a well-respected government official, appealed his ouster and the government decided to allow Vernadsky to continue his association with the university as long as he now sought that international education. As soon as his first child, George was born, Vernadsky began studying at the University of Naples.
Soon after his arrival in Italy, Vernadsky realized that the Naples department no longer led the field, so he transferred to Munich to study with the German crystallographer Paul Groth. In 1889 Vernadsky transferred to Paris's Mining Academy, where, under the guidance of Henri Le Châelier, he chose polymorphism—the ability of some chemical compounds to assume different forms—as the topic for his master's thesis. Whereas it was previously believed that the aluminosilicate minerals which make up most of the earth's crust were silicic acid salts, Vernadsky showed them to have a different structure, with aluminum that is chemically analogous to silicon. He proposed the theory of the kaolin nucleus, a structure which is made up of two aluminum, two silicon, and seven oxygen atoms, and which forms the basis of many minerals. The theory has since been confirmed, and is considered essential to an understanding of minerals.
Vernadsky started lecturing at Moscow University in 1891, the year he received his master's degree. Like many intellectuals of his time and place, he found himself balancing academic interests with political ones. In 1897, Vernadsky earned a doctoral degree with his dissertation on crystalline matter, qualifying him for a full professorship. The following year his daughter Nina was born.
The first decade of the twentieth century proved a productive one for Vernadsky. His new approach of combining geologic interests with other scientific fields, such as chemistry and biology, attracted supporters. By 1901, when he created the Mineralogical Circle at Moscow University, he had a devoted cadre of students and colleagues who formed a scientific school that was heavily influenced by the latest theories in chemistry and evolutionary biology. He also maintained an interest in politics, helping to found the Union of Liberation, a group that sought to end the Russian autocracy peacefully. In 1902 he published a summary of his political views, disguised as science, in On a Scientific World View. The next year, he published his first scientific book, Fundamentals of Crystallography.
When the universities again erupted in turmoil in 1905, Vernadsky operated a lab until the university closed. Caught up in the fervor of the times, he helped organize the Constitutional Democratic party, the largest opposition party to pose candidates for the nation's newly created Duma. His political work did not deter him from amassing scientific honors, however. In 1906 Vernadsky was elected as an adjunct member of the Academy of Sciences and appointed director of St. Petersburg's Mineralogical Museum; two years later he melded his interests with his appointment to the Agrarian Commission of the State Council.
After the university riots of 1905, the campus situation calmed down somewhat, allowing the faculty to return to teaching and research. For Vernadsky, that meant expanding the field of mineralogy to include evolutionary concerns. As he explained in volume 2 of Izbrannye sochinenia, his version of mineralogy held that "mineralogy, like chemistry, must study not only the products of chemical reactions but also the very processes of reaction." He was particularly interested in paragenesis, or the way in which essential minerals formed. By studying the many layers of the earth's crust in this manner, Vernadsky hoped to be able to piece together some of the planet's evolutionary history. In 1911 strikes interrupted his work once more. In retaliation for the liberal faculty's support of miscreant students, the government fired three professors. Twenty-eight percent of the faculty—including Vernadsky—resigned in protest. Soon after resigning, Vernadsky was expelled from the state council.
Loss of both these positions meant free time for Vernadsky to pursue his scientific interests. He moved to St. Petersburg, where he took a job as a scientific administrator and continued research on the distribution of rare elements such as cesium, rubidium, scandium, and indium. He made one expedition per year to remote areas in the Russian empire to catalog the nation's resources. During World War I, Vernadsky spearheaded a movement to conserve Russian natural resources , culminating in the formation of the Commission for the Study of the Natural Productive Forces of Russia in 1915. When the Tsarist regime collapsed in 1917, Vernadsky became involved in politics again, joining a campaign to persuade Russians to take pride in and preserve their culture. Vernadsky served briefly as the government's assistant minister in charge of universities and institutions, until the October revolution, which ushered in a government whose politics did not mesh with Vernadsky's. In 1919, he moved to Kiev to found and become president of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. When the Red Terror of 1919 drove him into hiding, Vernadsky spent his time in isolation, developing the blueprints for a new field he called biogeochemistry . As he saw it, this new discipline studied the nexus between geology, chemistry, and biology, determining how prevalent life was, the rates at which different forms of life multiply, and the processes and speed of adaptation .
Vernadsky left Russia in 1921 for France, where he worked with Marie Curie. During this period, he coalesced his thoughts on the interconnection of all living and nonliving beings on Earth into a book entitled The Biosphere. After four years in the West, Vernadsky's wife lobbied to move there permanently, rather than returning to Soviet Russia. But the government was eager to attract prominent scholars such as Vernadsky and offered him a chair in the academy with the promise of time and funding for his own work, an offer that no Western institution matched. In 1926 he founded and headed the Commission on the History of Knowledge of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and lay the basis for the organization that later became the Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry.
During the Stalin years, Vernadsky continued working, relatively uninterrupted. His earlier years of protest against the Tsar, combined with his image as an elder statesman of science, protected him from the government persecution that many of his colleagues experienced. In 1935 he began writing philosophical essays on the nature of the world. In 1940 his years of interest in radioactivity culminated in the creation of the Uranium Institute. During World War II, he argued for Russia to develop its atomic energy program. His wife died in 1943 while the couple was evacuated from their home. Vernadsky passed away two years later on January 6, 1945, a few months after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.
Balandin, R. K. Outstanding Soviet Scientists: Vladímir Vernadsky. Translated by Alexander Repyev. Moscow: Mir Publishers, 1982.
Bailes, Kendall. Science and Russian Culture in an Age of Revolutions: V. I. Vernadsky and His Scientific School, 1863–1945. Indiana University Press, 1990.
Izbrannye sochinenia (Selected works). Six volumes. Moscow, 1954–1960.
Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2002.
Vernadsky, Vladímir. Biosfera (The biosphere). Leningrad, 1926.