Victor Moritz Goldschmidt

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Goldschmidt, Victor Moritz

(b. Zurich, Switzerland, 27 January 1888; d. Oslo, Norway, 20 March 1947)

geochemistry, chemistry, mineralogy.

Goldschmidt was the only son of the distinguished physical chemist Heinrich Jacob Goldschmidt, who held professorships at Amsterdam, Heidelberg, and Oslo; his mother was Amelie Kühne. After secondary education at Heidelberg, Goldschmidt matriculated in 1905 at the University of Christiania (now Oslo) to study chemistry, mineralogy, and geology. During this year he obtained Norwegian citizenship. His university work was strongly influenced by W. C. Brøgger, the noted Norwegian petrologist and mineralogist, and by such earth scientists as Paul von Groth at Munich and Friedrich Becke at Vienna, in whose institutes he spent the winter terms of 1908 and 1911. Goldschmidt received the doctorate in 1911. Following two years as an instructor at the University of Christiania, in 1914 he was appointed full professor and director of its mineralogical institute.

Goldschmidt’s doctoral thesis, “Die Kontaktmetamorphose im Kristianiagebiet,” concerned the factors governing the mineral associations in contactmetamorphic rocks and was based upon samples collected in southern Norway. This investigation led to the mineralogical phase rule, which states that the maximum number of crystalline phases that can coexist in rocks in stable equilibrium is equal to the number of components. Goldschmidt continued these petrological studies on regional metamorphism as the first phase of his scientific career, until the middle of World War I. They culminated in the publication of five large reports with the common title Geologischpetrographische Studien im Hochgebirge des südlichen Norwegens, published between 1912 and 1921.

In 1917 the Norwegian government called upon Goldschmidt to investigate the country’s mineral resources, and he became chairman of the Government Commission for Raw Materials and director of the Raw Materials Laboratory. His dedication to these practical problems reflected his concern for the utilization of science for the benefit of society. These commitments involved finding local sources for previously imported chemicals, tasks which led Goldschmidt into the second phase of his scientific career—investigations seeking the factors governing the distribution of chemical species in nature.

The base for this geochemical work evolved from extensive crystallographic studies in the Oslo laboratory made by means of the newly developed X-ray techniques which utilized the discoveries of Max von Laue, W. H. Bragg, and W. L. Bragg. Goldschmidt and his associates worked out the crystal structures of 200 compounds of seventy-five elements to form the background for the elucidation of the laws of geochemical distribution. He was able to produce the first tables of atomic and ionic radii for many of the elements, and he investigated the substitution of one element for another in crystals and established patterns of elemental behavior in such processes. The complex formulas of such minerals as tourmaline and mica could be explained by the maintenance of charge neutrality for the positive and negative ions through substitutions based primarily on size. Goldschmidt related the hardness of crystals to their structures, ionic charges, and interatomic distances. This extensive work in geochemistry and mineralogy was published as the monographs Geochemische Verteilungsgesetze der Elemente, I-VIII.

In 1929 Goldschmidt became full professor in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Göttingen and head of its mineralogical institute. Here he initiated geochemical investigations on germanium, gallium, scandium, beryllium, the noble metals, boron, the alkali metals, selenium, arsenic, chromium, nickel, and zinc. Analyses were performed on both terrestrial materials and extraterrestrial meteorites. A model of the earth was formulated in which elements were accumulated in various geological domains on the bases of their charges and sizes and the polarizabilities of their ions. The siderophilic elements, postulated to concentrate in the metallic liquid core of the earth, include iron, nickel, gold, and germanium. The lithophilic elements are enriched in the outer portions of the earth; silicon, magnesium, calcium, aluminum, and the alkalies are members of this class. A third group encompasses the chalcophilic elements, those which ally themselves to sulfur, such as lead and copper. The atmophilic elements have gaseous forms at the temperatures and pressures encountered in the earth’s atmosphere and include the noble gases, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen. Finally, there are the biophilic species, elements that are preferentially incorporated into organisms; carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, vanadium, calcium, and potassium fall within this group. A rather elegant verification of the first three categories is in Goldschmidt’s study of the metallurgical products from the copper industry of the Mansfeld in Germany. Here the sulfide, pig iron, and silicate slags included elements that were predicted from his model of the earth.

Following a series of unpleasant confrontations with the emerging anti-Semitism of the Nazis, Goldschmidt abandoned his Göttingen chair in 1935 and returned to Oslo, where a similar position at the university was immediately offered to him. Here he collated his data on cosmic and terrestrial distributions of chemical elements in the ninth and final publication of the Verteilungsgesetze and entered into isotopic geology by considering the significances of the isotopic compositions of elements in minerals. While in Oslo, Goldschmidt reentered industrial work and developed techniques for utilizing Norwegian olivine rock in industrial refractories. The onset of World War II brought additional brushes with the Germans. He escaped concentration camps, although imprisoned several times, and, following periods of hiding, made his way to Sweden and then Great Britain. In the final phases of his scientific career at the Macaulay Institute for Soil Research and at Rothamsted, he applied his previously gained geochemical concepts to soil science. Goldschmidt’s manuscripts for the definitive treatise on the science of geochemistry, which he had done so much to found, were edited after his death by A. Muir and were published in 1954.

The adversities and humiliations suffered by Goldschmidt at the hands of the Nazis were met with courage and wit. Under Nazi occupation in Norway and Germany, he carried a capsule of hydrocyanic acid for use as the final evasion of oppression. A university colleague in Oslo once asked Goldschmidt for a similar capsule. He replied, “This poison is for professors of chemistry only. You, as a professor of mechanics, will have to use the rope.”

Goldschmidt stands as one of the pioneers in geochemistry who, utilizing the basic properties of matter, gave simple and beautiful explanations of the composition of our environment. He never married, but his students and associates provided him with warm personal friendships. His co-workers, such as Fritz Laves, T. F. W. Barth, and W. Zachariasen, became noted geochemists; and some of his students, including Theodor Ernst, H. Hauptmann, W. von Engelhardt, and C. Peters, became heads of university departments.


I. Original Works. The complete list of Goldschmidt’s some 200 papers may be found in Norsk geologisk tidsskrift, 27 (1949), 143–163. In addition, see his posthumously published Geochemistry, Alex Muir, ed. (London, 1954).

II. Secondary Literature. On Goldschmidt and his work see J. D. Bernal, “The Goldschmidt Memorial Lecture,” in Journal of the Chemical Society (1949), pp. 2108–2114; Carl W. Correns, “Victor Moritz Goldschmidt,” in Naturwissenschaften, 34 (1947), 129–131; and Ivar Oftedal, “Memorial to Victor Moritz Goldschmidt,” in Proceedings. Geological Society of America (1948), pp. 149–154.

E. D. Goldberg

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GOLDSCHMIDT, VICTOR MORITZ (1888–1947), Norwegian mineralogist, crystallographer, and geochemist. Goldschmidt was born in Zurich, son of Heinrich Jacob Goldschmidt (1857–1937) who became professor of chemistry at Oslo University in 1901. In 1914 Victor Goldschmidt was appointed professor of crystallography, mineralogy, and petrography at Oslo University. In 1929 he was appointed director of the mineralogical-petrographical institute at Goettingen, but in 1935 left Nazi Germany to return to Oslo. He was chairman of the Norwegian Friends of the Hebrew University in 1937. After the invasion of Norway in 1940, Goldschmidt was hunted by the Nazis and was arrested on several occasions. The underground succeeded in smuggling him to Sweden in December 1942 and from there he was flown to England, where he devoted himself to work connected with atomic energy. He returned to Oslo in 1946. Goldschmidt was one of the great mineralogists and crystallographers of his generation and is recognized as the founder of the new science of geochemistry. Already in his doctoral thesis in 1911 on the "Phenomena of Metamorphosis" he established a basis for classifying the metamorphic minerals according to general physico-chemical laws, proposed the concept of "stability limits" of minerals, and developed the idea of mineral facies that became the central idea in mineralogy-petrography. Later he developed the notion of type relationships of rocks and laid the foundations of genetic classification of magnetic rocks. Besides these main fields of work, he also explained the distribution of chemical elements in the earth's crust and defined the laws of distribution that result from the natural factors in elements themselves. Goldschmidt was also interested in problems of practical research including the formation of mineral pigments, the production of aluminum from silicates, the use of biotite as a fertilizer, and the use of olivine as a raw material for the production of materials resistant to chemical and heat reactions. Goldschmidt's main works were Die Kontaktmetamorphose im Kristianiagebiet (1911); Geologisch-petrographische Studien… (5 vols. 1912–21); Geochemische Verteilungsgesetze der Elemente (9 parts, 1923–38).


D. Oftedal, in: Geological Society of America, Proceedings 1947 (1948), 149–54, includes bibliography; C.E. Tilley, in: Royal Society of London, Obituary Notices…, 17 (1948), 51–66; Norwegian Academy of Science, Årbok 1947 (1948), 85–102.

[Yakov K. Bentor]

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Goldschmidt, Victor Moritz (1888–1947) A Norwegian geochemist, Goldschmidt developed some of the basic techniques of physics for use in geochemistry, including X-ray diffraction and spectroscopy. He did important work on metamorphism and trace elements, described in his textbook Geochemistry, published posthumously in 1954.