(b. Åbo [now Turku], Finland, 5 June 1760; d. Wirmo, Finland, 15 August 1852)
Gadolin’s father, Jacob, was professor of physics and theology at the Finnish University at Åbo and later became bishop of Åbo. His maternal grandfather, Johan Brovallius, was also professor of physics at Åbo and a friend of Linnaeus. Gadolin studied chemistry under Pehr Adrian Gadd, the first professor of chemistry at Åbo. He then spent four years at Uppsala studying with Torbern Bergman, during which time he began his work on mineralogy and specific heats.
Upon Bergman’s death in 1784 Gadolin became a candidate for the chair of chemistry at Uppsala, but Johann Afzelius, adjunct at Uppsala, was selected. After having become extraordinary professor at Åbo in 1785, Gadolin had sufficient time to travel in Europe and become well acquainted with Richard Kirwan, Adair Crawford, and Lorenz F. F. von Crell, to whose Chemische Annalen he later contributed frequently. When Gadd died in 1797, Gadolin became ordinary professor, post which he held until his retirement in 1822. The great fire of 1827 destroyed his extensive mineral collection (and much of Åbo) and ended his scientific career. He retired to the country, where he died at the age of ninety-two.
As an educator Gadolin was significant for opening his chemical laboratory to students, preceding by many years Liebig’s famous laboratory at Giessen. His Inleding till chemien (1798) was the first Swedishlanguage textbook written in the spirit of the new combustion theory.
Although he accepted the phlogiston theory early in his career, Gadolin attempted to understand Lavoisier’s ideas. In a paper published in 1788 he tried to define phlogiston and admitted that the French explanation of combustion was superior to some phlogiston theories, but for a long time he was not wholly converted. His lectures always made use of the new chemistry, and he eventually became the spokesman in Scandinavia for Lavoisier’s nomenclature and combustion theory, often encountering Berzelius, opposition. Despite his willingness to accept these new ideas, he never made use of the work of Dalton, Davy, or Gay-Lussac.
Gadolin’s chemical contributions cover a large area. By 1784 he had published two important papers on specific heat, and in 1791 he published one on the latent heat of steam. Having established the composition of Prussian blue, he made a significant contribution to analytical chemistry by suggesting the ferricyanide titration of ferrous iron (precipitating the ferrous ion quantitatively as ferro ferricyanide). This volumetric analysis preceded Gay-Lussac’s classic work by forty years.
Best remembered for his studies in mineralogy, Gadolin in 1792–1793 analyzed a new black mineral (later named gadolinite) from Ytterby, Sweden, and discovered in it a new earth, yttria, later shown to contain several elements of the rare-earth series. In 1886 Jean Charles Marignac isolated a new rare-earth element and named it gadolinium, the first element named for a person.
Honored by his contemporaries with memberships in several European scientific societies, Gadolin declined a call to succeed J. F. Gmelin to a full professorship at Göttingen in 1804. Interested in politics, he was influential in bringing about the political separation of Finland from Sweden.
I. Original Works. Gadolin’s most significant publication is his textbook Inleding till chemien (Åbo, 1798). A lengthy essay on chemical affinity is Dissertatio academia historiam doctrinae de affinatibus chemicis exhibens (Åbo, 1815). His classification of minerals was published as Systema fossilium analysibus chemicis examinatorum secundum partium constitutivarum rationes ordinatorium (Berlin, 1825). Reports of many of Gadolin’s chemical investigations appeared in German in Crell’s Chemische Annalen für die Freunde der Naturlehre, Arzneygelahrheit, Haushaltungskeit und Manufacturen. Among the more important publications in the Chemische Annalen are his theory of combustion (1788), 1 , 1–17; and his discovery of the new earth, yttria (1796), 1 , 313.
II. Secondary Literature. Numerous short biographical sketches of Gadolin exist in the literature. Among the most useful and accessible are Vieno Ojala and Ernest R. Schierz, “Finnish Chemists,” in Journal of Chemical Education, 14 (1937), 161–165; and T. E. T. [probably Thomas Edward Thorpe], “Johan Gadolin,” in Nature, 86 (1911), 48–49. A book-length biography in Finnish is Robert A. A. Tigerstedt, Johan Gadolin. Ett bidrag till de induktiva vetenskapernas historia in Finland (Helsinki, 1877). A collection of German and Latin essays in honor of Gadolin is Edvard Hjelt and Robert Tigerstedt, eds., Johan Gadolin 1760–1852, in memoriam . . . (Leipzig, 1910).
Sheldon J. Kopperl
Johan Gadolin became an expert in the chemistry of the elements known as the lanthanide series of elements. From 1775 to 1779 he studied mathematics, then chemistry, in Åbo, Finland. From 1779 to 1782 he studied chemistry in Uppsala, Sweden. He received a master of science degree at the age of twenty-two, in 1782. During his Uppsala years he became friends with the Swedish chemists Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786) and Johan Gottlieb Gahn (1745–1818).
In 1786 he undertook a "grand tour" of Denmark, Germany, Holland, England, and Ireland. In Germany he met Lorenz Crell (1744–1816), the editor of the journal Chemische Annalen. They became friends, and it was in Crell's journal that many of Gadolin's research papers were eventually published in an international forum. In Ireland Gadolin worked with the Irish chemists Adair Crawford (1748–1795) and Richard Kirwan (1733–1812), investigating specific heat capacities and specific latent heats. After his return to Finland, Gadolin continued to his work in this area.
Gadolin is recognized for having discovered the element yttrium in 1794. He had been studying a black mineral that had been found by Karl Axel Arrhenius (1757–1824) in Ytterby, Sweden. The mineral was eventually named gadolinite. Working with the mineral, Gadolin was able to isolate an oxide substance (apparently the oxide of a new element) that was later named yttria. The existence of the new element, yttrium, was eventually confirmed.
In 1880 the French chemist Jean-Charles-Galissard de Marignac (1817–1894) studied samples of erbium metal that had been extracted from gadolinite. He discovered that the erbium metal contained minute amounts of a second metal. He named the metal (and the element) gadolinium, after the mineral.
From 1785 to 1822 Gadolin was a professor of chemistry at the university in Åbo (formerly the Academy of Turku). He believed that students should learn chemistry by working in a laboratory and he enunciated that belief. Because the laboratory at the university was unsatisfactory, he built his own and invited his students to work there.
Gadolin added to the university's reputation, and when offered a chair at the university of Göttingen in Germany, he declined. Gadolin took part in the collective life of his motherland. Johan Gadolin is part of the Finnish national identity.
see also Erbium; Gadolinium; Lanthanides; Minerals; Scheele, Carl; Yttrium.
Alho, Olli, ed. (1997). Finland: A Cultural Encyclopedia. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society.