Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev
Mendeleev, Dmitrii Ivanovich
MENDELEEV, DMITRII IVANOVICH
(b. Tobolsk, Siberia, Russia, 8 February 1834; d. St. Petersburg, Russia, 2 February 1907),
chemistry, periodic table. For the original article on Mendeleev see DSB, vol. 9.
Recognition of Mendeleev as the most important, although not the only, developer of the periodic law has strengthened in recent years, and his contributions to other areas of science and learning have begun to be explored in greater detail by scholars. Interest in Mendeleev’s work has continued in the early twenty-first century, and a small but steady stream of studies continues to flow from scholars both inside and outside of Russia.
Although a considerable part of the work on Mendeleev’s output considers the various aspects of the periodic law and its discovery—his most important contribution to science—there is a growing interest in Mendeleev’s scientific work for the Russian government, his involvement with practical issues of agriculture and industry, his critique of spiritualism, and his scientific research on the theory of solutions and on gas laws, among other aspects of his life and work. All of these provide a fuller context in which to better understand his central scientific contributions.
The Periodic Law and its Reception . B. M. Kedrov’s article in the original Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1981; DSB) brought his conception of the discovery of the periodic law to a broader audience and this view has since become widely accepted by many scholars. In brief, Kedrov argued that Mendeleev formulated the main contours of the periodic law during the course of one day, 17 February 1869 on the Russian calendar (1 March by the Gregorian calendar in use in the West). Mendeleev had recently been appointed to the chair of chemistry at St. Petersburg University and was writing his own general chemistry textbook for use in his classes. By early in 1869, Mendeleev had finished the first part of the textbook, ending with a chapter on the halogens, and moved on to the alkali metals. He was then faced with what group to consider next. The logical choice was the alkaline earth metals, but some other metals had similar properties, so Mendeleev would have to choose which way to proceed. On 17 February, he began to compare the atomic weights of these various groups of elements, which Kedrov identified as the key step in the discovery of the periodic law. Over the course of this day, Mendeleev increased the numbers of elements he was able to arrange in groups in several rough drafts of a table. To help in this process, he made a series of cards on which he wrote the symbols and main properties of the sixty-three then-known elements and began to play what Kedrov called chemical solitaire. At the end of the day, he drafted a clean copy of his table of elements and sent it to be printed.
There are serious deficiencies with Kedrov’s account that are beginning to be recognized and discussed by a larger group of scholars, even though a few historians of chemistry (mainly residing in St. Petersburg) had long
provided alternate views of Mendeleev’s discovery. Kedrov provided an extremely detailed, almost hour-by-hour recreation of the so-called day of one great discovery. However, the evidentiary basis of this reconstruction is shaky, because the few archival documents Kedrov used cannot definitively be dated to that one day and may not even refer to the incidents claimed by Kedrov. In addition, Kedrov tended to overlook the evidence provided in Mendeleev’s textbook as a guide to his thoughts during the months surrounding 17 February. Kedrov’s belief that the key step in the discovery involved the alkali metals and what elements to discuss after this group is implausible, because no hesitation can be noted in Mendeleev’s prior plans for his textbook and the chemical properties of the alkali earths make them the natural successors, despite some other elements having a few similar properties. Also, Kedrov’s emphasis on Mendeleev’s comparison of various natural families of elements by the atomic weights of their members is likewise implausible because many of these groups did not have clearly established weights and other properties in 1869.
In contrast to Kedrov’s view of the discovery taking place on one day, a credible case can be made for a longer process of discovery that lasted well over a year. When Mendeleev first began writing his textbook from 1867–1869, he formulated a framework for thinking about the elements, which included, among other ideas, an abstract conception of a chemical element using its atomic weight as the fundamental feature that determined its chemical energy and consequently also its chemical properties. By early 1869 Mendeleev had arrived at the concept that trends in properties of elements corresponded to increases in their atomic weights. However, a system based only on this criterion did not satisfy him, because the different periods exhibited varying characters, such as the number of elements in them and the rate of change of some of the elements’ properties. In constructing this early fragmentary table, he employed analogies between atoms and organic compounds, including the idea that elements could be viewed as similar to isomers in organic chemistry. Using this idea from organic chemistry, he identified two classes of elements, where some chemical elements with similar atomic weights have different chemical properties, whereas other elements with similar atomic weights have similar chemical properties. He continued to struggle with his desire for a unified table that would have a symmetrical structure.
The version of the table he completed on 17 February 1869 was a compromise between Mendeleev’s two main taxonomical criteria: physico-chemical relationships and chemical relationships. This table clearly showed the physico-chemical criteria of the periodic change in the properties of the elements based on their atomic weights (his first taxonomic requirement), but much less well the chemical relationships between the different elements in one column (group; his second desideratum). This compromise table was similar to those of some of his predecessors, but it did not satisfy Mendeleev’s thirst for what he termed a natural system of elements. To construct this type of a system, he needed to find chemical criteria that could unite elements of the different classes. By the end of 1869 or early in 1870, Mendeleev had settled on the use of the highest forms of oxygen compounds (higher salt-forming oxides and their corresponding hydrates and salts) as the essential chemical criterion. Using this idea, Mendeleev recognized that the characteristic properties of the elements determine the highest oxidation state of these elements and the properties of these compounds: “[T]he natural arrangement of elements in groups according to the size of the atomic weight corresponds to the amount of oxygen that these elements can hold in the highest salt-forming oxides” (1958, p. 57). He used this principle to solve his main classificatory problem of uniting elements of different classes and by November 1870 was able to create a natural system of elements. Although this did not resolve all of his problems, such as placement of the rare earths, it did allow him to formulate the
periodic law in its entirety: “the essence, the nature of elements, is expressed in their weight, i.e., in the mass of the substance entering into the reaction... The physical and chemical properties of elements, appearing in the properties of the simple and complex bodies they form, stand in a periodic dependence...on their atomic weight” (1949, p. 907). He summarized his findings in a long paper published in 1871 in Justus Liebig’s Annalen der Chemie, later calling it “the best summary of my views and ideas on the periodicity of the elements.” Although he did some further work on developing the periodic law after this time, his main attention shifted to other interests.
It took many years for Mendeleev’s periodic law to become accepted by a majority of scientists. Kedrov, in his DSB article, claims that the discovery of gallium, scandium, and germanium—earlier predicted by Mendeleev—was “of decisive importance in the acceptance of the law.” However, Mendeleev made many other predictions that turned out to be incorrect. This has led to a debate among scholars over whether prediction or accommodation (the ability of the theory to incorporate known facts) was the primary factor in the acceptance of Mendeleev’s periodic law. For example, Brush has shown that scientific journals and textbooks began to discuss the periodic law only after the confirmation of Mendeleev’s predictions. He suggests that chemists gave more weight to these novel predictions, which then can help explain why Mendeleev’s work is remembered whereas the others who claimed to discover the periodic law have been forgotten. Alternatively, Scerri believes that the successful predictions served mainly to draw attention to Mendeleev’s periodic law itself and that once scientists became aware of it, they valued the way it successfully incorporated known facts. In addition, other aspects of the periodic law—such as its ability to correctly place beryllium and other difficult elements in the table—helped it gain gradual acceptance from scientists by about 1890.
Long before the discovery of isotopes, chemists realized there was something deeply puzzling about Mendeleev’s Periodic Law. It was not based on atomic weights per se, but on periodicities in the order of atomic weights. In the first edition of his textbook, Mendeleev speculated that “interal differences of the matter that comprises the atoms of similar elements” could be the reasons for their differences in properties (1949, p. 191). In the fifth edition (1889), Mendeleev singled out mass as the key determinant of periodicity. He later (sixth edition, 1895) used an analogy with Newton’s law of gravitation to argue that mass is the source of periodicity. Even though we do not have an explanation for this relationship of periodicity on mass, he asserted, it can be accepted, just as we accept the law of gravitation—also without explanation—because it works.
Mendeleev’s Work in Other Fields . Russian scholars have long examined the totality of Mendeleev’s varied activities both inside and outside of science, although they have devoted most of their attention to examining the periodic law and its consequences. In his DSB entry, Kedrov provided a brief summary of many of these activities. Scholars outside of Russia, however, have not paid much attention to Mendeleev’s activities other than the periodic law until relatively recently (Gordin, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2004; Rice, 1998; Brooks, 1998, 2003; Almgren, 1968, 1998; Stackenwalt, 1976, 1998). This recent work has opened important new perspectives on Mendeleev.
It is difficult to make sense of Mendeleev’s intentions in pursuing many of his varied activities—such as his sudden abandonment of work on the periodic law in 1871 in order to take up research on gas laws funded by the Imperial Russian Technical Society, his widely scattered activities as an economic consultant, his writings on theoretical economics, his research on smokeless gunpowder, among others—but some possible clues are emerging. Gordin has viewed Mendeleev as a conservative reformer who wished to bring order to the world around him—both the scientific as well as political worlds. At first Mendeleev hoped to use scientific societies and expert opinions as a way to organize the necessary development of the Russian Empire after the changes wrought by the Great Reforms Era. For example, Mendeleev used the Russian Physical Society as the organizer of a commission to investigate spiritualist claims during the 1870s. What mainly concerned Mendeleev, it seems, was the spiritualists’ desire to encroach upon what Mendeleev saw as scientific territory by interpreting natural phenomena. Although Mendeleev gained some measure of renown for his participation in this commission and his activities against spiritualism, he did not succeed in vanquishing spiritualist beliefs from Russian society. Kedrov quotes Mendeleev’s statement that “spiritism was rejected,” but this was not the case; Russian spiritualism continued to flourish long after this time.
Gordin has argued that Mendeleev’s rejection for full membership by the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1880 initiated an imperial turn in Mendeleev’s thinking. From that time on, Mendeleev devoted more of his attention to concerns that would require empire-wide organization and changes. Thus, he began to become involved with the economic development of Russia, as in his efforts to reform the tariff and in his actions as director of the Chief Bureau of Weights and Measures. In these activities Mendeleev at first functioned closely with high-ranking government bureaucrats and then he became one himself. Soviet historians of science often implied that Mendeleev held anti-tsarist views, but in fact he firmly supported the government, although he had disputes with some officials while working well with others.
Mendeleev had a long interest in issues dealing with metrology when he was appointed the scientific curator of the Depot of Weights and Measures in 1892. Especially in the decade prior to this appointment, he had become deeply involved in various economic matters, including his leading work on the revision of the tariff structure from 1889 to 1892 under the auspices of the Ministry of Finance. Mendeleev drew up an expansive plan for his new institution, which was soon transformed into the Central Bureau of Weights and Measures in 1893 with himself as director. He envisioned an institution that would carry out both practical activities and purely scientific research, and he greatly enlarged both its staff and purview. The main goals of the new institution were to unify the many different weights and measures used in the diverse Russian Empire, achieve their regulation in trade and industry, and orchestrate the eventual conversion to the metric system. The first task tackled by the bureau was the renovation of the prototypes of the official standards of weights and measures employed in Russia. At the same time, Mendeleev and his colleagues conducted research on various metrological questions, most of them related in some way to the renewal of the prototypes. For example, the researchers made extremely precise determinations of the weight of one liter of air and one liter of water, and conducted studies on how to increase the precision of balances as well as on techniques of weighing, among others. Also, Mendeleev founded a new scientific journal in which the results of this research could be published and made available to scholars both in Russia and abroad. When the prototypes had been prepared and tested, Mendeleev drafted a new law (enacted in 1899) on standardization that codified the prototypes and created the framework for their use in the unification of standards throughout Russia. One of the major provisions of the law was for the gradual adoption of the metric system in Russia. This law also gave the bureau responsibility for a network of local stations and inspectors to verify the accuracy of weights and measures used in trade and commerce throughout the empire. Meanwhile, Mendeleev began to develop plans for establishing standards of measurement for liquids, gas and water flows, electricity, light, and others. Mendeleev and the bureau received strong support for all of these (sometimes very costly) activities from the minister of finance, especially under Count Sergei Iu. Witte (1892-1903). However, Mendeleev had to temper his plans for expansion in the years before his death, likely due to Witte’s resignation as well as to the financial pressures related to the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and the military buildup after the war.
WORKS BY MENDELEEV
Sochineniia. 14. Moscow-Leningrad: Izdatel'stvo Akademiia Nauk SSSR, 1949.
Periodicheskii zakon. Osnovnye stat’i. Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1958.
Zavetnye myski. Polnoe izdanie [Cherished thoughts]. Moscow: Mysl’, 1995. The version of this work in the Soviet-era Collected Works contains many deletions. This version is the same as the original 1905 edition.
S dumooiu o blage rossiiskom: Izbrannye ekonomicheskie proizvedeniia. Novosibirsk, Russia: Nauka, 1991.
Mendeleev on the Periodic Law. Selected Writings, 1869–1905. Edited by William B. Jensen. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2002.
Almgren, Beverly. “Mendeleev: The Third Service, 1834–1882.” PhD diss., Brown University, 1968.
_____. “D. I. Mendeleev and Siberia.” Ambix 45 (1998): 50–66.
Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette. “L’éther, élément chimique: un essai malheureux de Mendéléev (1902)?” British Journal for the History of Science 15 (1982): 183–188.
_____. “La genése du tableau de Mendeleev.” La recherche 15, no. 159 (1984): 1207–1215.
_____. “Mendeleev’s Periodic System of Chemical Elements.” British Journal for the History of Science 19 (1986): 3–17.
Brooks, Nathan M. “Mendeleev and Metrology.” Ambix 45 (1998): 116–128.
_____. “Dmitrii Mendeleev’s Principles of Chemistry and the Periodic Law of the Elements.” In Communicating Chemistry: Textbooks and Their Audiences, edited by A. Lundgren and B. Bensaude-Vincent. Canton, Massachusetts: Science History Publications, 2000.
_____. “Developing the Periodic Law: Mendeleev’s Work during 1869–1871.” Foundations of Chemistry 4 (2002): 127–147.
_____. “D. I. Mendeleev kak ekonomicheskii sovetnik Rossiiskogo pravitel'stva.” In Vlast’ i nauka, uchenye i vlast’: 1880-e—nachalo 1920-kh godov, edited by N. N. Smirnov.St. Petersburg: Dmitrii Bulanin, 2003.
Brush, Stephen G. “Prediction and Theory Evaluation in Physics and Astronomy.” In No Truth Except in the Details: Essays in Honor of Martin J. Klein, edited by A. J. Kox and Daniel M. Siegel. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 1995.
_____. “The Reception of Mendeleev’s Periodic Law in America and Britain.” Isis 87 (1996): 595–628.
Dmitriev, Igor S., ed. Mendeleevskii sbornik. St. Petersburg: St. Petersburg University Press, 1999.
_____. “Nauchnoe otkrytie in statu nascendi: periodicheskii zakon D. I. Mendeleeva.” Voprosy istorii estestvoznaniia i tekhniki 1 (2001): 31-82.
_____. Chelovek epokhi peremen. Ocherki o D. I. Mendeleeve i ego vremeni. St. Petersburg: Khimizdat, 2004a. A collection of Dmitriev’s important studies on Mendeleev.
_____. “Scientific Discovery in statu nascendi: The Case of Dmitrii Mendeleev’s Periodic Law.” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 34 (2004b): 233–275. A summary of Dmitriev’s important re-interpretation of the contexts of Mendeleev’s discovery which includes a detailed critique of Kedrov’s account of the discovery of the periodic law. For the more extensive Russian version of this article, see Dmitriev (2001).
Dobrotin, R. B., N. G. Karpilo, L. S. Kerova, and D. N. Trifonov. Letopis’ zhizni i deiatel’nosti D. I. Mendeleeva. Leningrad: Nauka, 1984.
Gordin, Michael D. “Making Newtons: Mendeleev, Metrology, and the Chemical Ether.” Ambix 45 (1998): 96–115.
_____. “Loose and Baggy Spirits: Reading Dostoevskii and Mendeleev.” Slavic Review 60 (2001): 756–780.
_____. “The Organic Roots of Mendeleev’s Periodic Law.” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 32 (2002): 263–290.
_____. “Measure of All the Russias: Metrology and Governance in the Russian Empire.” Kritika 4 (2003a): 783–815.
_____. “A Modernization of ‘Peerless Homogeneity’: The Creation of Russian Smokeless Gunpowder.” Technology and Culture 44 (2003b): 677–702.
_____.A Well-Ordered Thing. Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table. New York: Basic Books, 2004. An important study that focuses on Mendeleev’s work other than the periodic system.
Kaji, Masanori. “On Mendeleev’s Path to the Discovery of the Periodic Law: Analysis of His Work of 1854–1869.” In Japanese. Kagakusi Kenkyu: Journal of the History of Science (Japan) 26 (1987): 129–139.
_____. Mendeleev’s Discovery of the Periodic Law of the Chemical Elements. The Scientific and Social Context of His Discovery. In Japanese. Sapporo, Japan: Hokkaido University Press, 1997.
_____. “D. I. Mendeleev’s Concept of Chemical Elements and The Principles of Chemistry” Bulletin of the History of Chemistry 27 (2002): 4–16.
Makarenia, A. A. D. I. Mendeleev i fiziko-khimicheskie nauki: Opyt nauchnoi biografii D. I. Mendeleeva, 2nd ed. Moscow: Energoizdat, 1982.
_____, and A. I. Nutrikhin. Mendeleev v Peterburge. Leningrad, Russia: Lenizdat, 1982.
Nekoval-Chikhaoui, Ludmilla. “Diffusion de la classification périodique de Mendeleev en France entre 1869 et 1934.” Ph.D. diss., Univ. Paris-Sud U.F. R. Scientifique d’Orsay, 1994.
Rawson, Don C. “The Process of Discovery: Mendeleev and the Periodic Law.” Annals of Science 31 (1974): 181–204.
_____. “Mendeleev and the Scientific Claims of Spiritualism.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 122 (1978): 1–8.
Rice, Richard E. “Mendeleev’s Public Opposition to Spiritualism.” Ambix 45 (1998): 85–95.
Scerri, Eric R. The Periodic Table. Its Story and Its Significance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Smith, J. R. “Persistence and Periodicity: A Study of Mendeleev’s Contribution to the Foundation of Chemistry.” Ph.D. diss., University of London, 1976.
Stackenwalt, Francis Michael. “The Economic Thought and Work of Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev.” Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1976.
_____. “Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev and the Emergence of the Modern Russian Petroleum Industry, 1863–1877.” Ambix (1998): 67–84.
Tishchenko, V. E., and M. N. Mladentsev. Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev, ego zhizn’ I deiatel’nost: Universitetskii period, 1861–1890 gg. Moscow: Nauka, 1993. Published as Nauchnoe Nasledstvo, vol. 21.
Trifonov, D. N. “Versiia-2. (K istorii otkrytiia periodicheskogo zakona D. I. Mendeleevym).” Voprosy istorii estestvoznaniia i tekhniki no. 2 (1990): 24–36; no. 3 (1990): 20–32. A critique of Kedrov’s version of the discovery of the periodic law.
Zamecki, Stefan. “Mendeleev’s First Periodic Table in Its Methodological Aspect.” Organon 25 (1995): 107–126.
Nathan M. Brooks
Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev
Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev
The Russian chemist Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev (1834-1907) is best known for the formulation of the periodic law of the chemical elements.
Dmitrii Mendeleev was born on Feb. 8, 1834, in the Siberian town of Tobolsk. He was the seventeenth and last child of Ivan Pavlovich and Maria Dmitrievna Mendeleev. At the age of 7 Dmitrii entered the gymnasium in Tobolsk and completed his studies in 1849. He displayed brilliant intellectual ability, a sharp memory, and a fascination for mathematics, physics, and geography. The following year he enrolled in the division of mathematical and natural sciences of the Main Pedagogical Institute of St. Petersburg, his father's alma mater.
Chemistry in Russia
The universities of Kazan and St. Petersburg were the principal centers of chemical activities in Russia during the first half of the 19th century. Mendeleev worked under Aleksandr A. Voskresenskii, whom the Russians call the grandfather of Russian chemistry. Mendeleev's first scientific paper was "The Analysis of Finnish Allanite and Pyroxene," and his diploma thesis was On Isomorphism in Connection with Other Relations between Crystalline Forms and Chemical Compositions (published in 1856 in Gorny zhurnal). His studies of the phenomenon of isomorphism led him to observe the similarity of the crystalline structures of related elements, which aided him in constructing the periodic table. When he graduated in 1855, he won the gold medal for being first in his class.
Mendeleev returned to the University of St. Petersburg in May 1856 to defend his thesis, On Specific Volumes. The degrees of master of physics and of chemistry were conferred on Mendeleev, and soon thereafter he presented a second thesis, The Structure of Siliceous Combinations. This resulted in his being appointed dozent, enabling him to teach theoretical and organic chemistry at the University of St. Petersburg. Toward the end of the 1850s Mendeleev reluctantly came to the conclusion that he would have to study abroad if he desired a professional chair because the research facilities at his university were inadequate.
After a brief stay at the Sorbonne, Mendeleev journeyed to Heidelberg University, where he organized his own laboratory. He concentrated on the problem of molecular cohesion as displayed in the phenomena of capillarity and surface tension. The results of his experiments were published in three papers: "The Capillary Properties of Liquids," "The Expansion of Liquids," and "The Temperature of the Absolute Boiling Points of the Same Liquids." The significant conclusion reached by Mendeleev was that the molecular cohesion of a liquid in a capillary tube disappears at a specific temperature and that no gas can be liquefied above its unique "absolute temperature," commonly designated as the "critical temperature." During his stay in Heidelberg he designed the Mendeleev pyknometer for determining the specific gravity of liquids.
In 1860 Mendeleev and several other Russian chemists participated in the work of the First International Congress of Chemistry at Karlsruhe. Its purpose was, according to Mendeleev's letter dated Sept. 7, 1860, "to clarify and, if possible, agree on the basic differences which exist between the followers of different chemical schools."
In 1861 Mendeleev resumed teaching chemistry at the University of St. Petersburg, the College of Engineering, and the Transport Institute. That year he wrote Organic Chemistry, Russia's first university manual on the subject. Two years later Mendeleev contracted an unhappy marriage with Feozva Nikitichna Leshcheva which lasted until 1876, when he met the young art student Anna Ivanovna Popov, whom he married illegally. When the charge of bigamy was raised against Mendeleev, Czar Alexander responded, "Mendeleev has two wives, yes, but I have only one Mendeleev."
Mendeleev accepted in 1864 the chair of technology (industrial chemistry) at the Technological Institute of St. Petersburg; received his doctorate in chemistry in 1865; filled in 1867 the chair of inorganic chemistry at the University of St. Petersburg, which he retained for the next 23 years; and helped found in 1868 the Russian Chemical Society.
It is difficult to determine precisely when Mendeleev first hit upon the periodic table. The problem of inaccurate atomic weights was solved by Stanislao Cannizzaro. Attempts to organize the chemical elements by increasing atomic weights had already been made by Alexandre Émile Béguyer de Chancourtois and by John Alexander Reina Newlands. It is known that Mendeleev also was impressed with certain regularities of the chemical properties of elements when preparing, in 1868, his highly successful text Principles of Chemistry. On March 18, 1869, Mendeleev's paper "An Outline of the System of the Elements, Based on Their Atomic Weights and Chemical Similarities," which contained the periodic table, was presented at the Russian Chemical Society and was subsequently published in Russian and German. In his table Mendeleev left six gaps for the yet-undiscovered elements having the atomic weights of 8, 22, 45, 68, 70, and 180.
Mendeleev had confidence in the existence of the law of periodicity of elements. He devoted considerable effort to predicting the chemical and physical properties of three elements vacant in the table. He named these hypothetical elements eka-boron, eka-aluminum, and eka-silicon (in Sanskrit the prefix eka means one). He was able to derive their valences and atomic weights and the formulas of compounds they are likely to form. Mendeleev's table hardly attracted attention until his predictions were fulfilled by the discoveries of gallium (1874), scandium (1879), and germanium (1885). The major drawbacks of his table were that it had difficulty in accommodating the rare-earth group and that no provision was made for the chemically inert elements, helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon.
In recognition for his formulation of the periodic law and the systematization of organic chemistry by means of his periodic table, academicians proposed Mendeleev's candidacy to the vacant chair of chemical technology of the Imperial Academy of Sciences. On Nov. 11, 1880, a shocked academic world learned of the rejection of Mendeleev's candidacy. Contributing to his defeat were Court Tolstoy, the minister of public education and later president of the Imperial Academy, who sought to limit the teaching of science in Russian schools and found Mendeleev a formidable opponent, and the members of the "German party" at the academy, who attempted to discourage native Russian scientists from becoming academicians. In expressing displeasure with the academy's rejection of Mendeleev and recognizing his achievements, five Russian universities elected Mendeleev as an honorary member, Cambridge and Oxford designated him an honored scholar, and numerous academies and societies elected him member. Few Russians since have been able to match Mendeleev's worldwide recognition.
Mendeleev also showed a great interest in technology. In 1863 he was immersed in the problems of the Baku petroleum industry. He suggested a pipeline should be built to carry the oil from Baku to the Black Sea. He noted that the system of leasing oil-rich government-owned lands for a 4-year period tended to prevent large-scale investments in needed equipment to modernize operations, and he fought the government tax on petroleum products. In 1876 Mendeleev visited the Pennsylvania oil fields, brought back some technical ideas, and presented an unflattering view of America in his book The Oil Industry in the North American State of Pennsylvania and the Caucasus. He developed a theory that petroleum originated from the action of water on metallic carbides inside the earth.
In 1886 Mendeleev turned his attention to agricultural productivity, earning him the reputation of being the founder of Russian agrochemistry. At the request of the Ministry of State Property, Mendeleev examined in 1888 the possibilities of organizing a coal-mining industry in the Donets Basin (Donbas). And in 1899, despite age and infirmity, he traveled to the Urals to investigate the stagnation of the iron industry. In his The Urals Iron Industry in 1899 he concluded the problem lay with the monopolistic practices of the owners.
While looking into the properties of rarefied gases under varying pressures, Mendeleev designed a differential barometer that could determine precisely the height above sea level. He became fascinated with the problem of studying the upper strata of the atmosphere, and he even went so far as to plan a hermetically sealed gondola that could carry a human observer or automatic recording equipment. On Aug. 7, 1887, Mendeleev had the opportunity to make an ascent in a government balloon for the purpose of observing a solar eclipse. Inasmuch as the balloon lacked the power to lift Mendeleev and his experienced balloonist, Mendeleev bodily ejected the balloonist and carried out a solo flight, rising to an altitude of 11,000 feet and landing two hours later after covering 150 miles. Just before his death, Mendeleev was contemplating a journey to the North Pole by balloon.
In 1890 Mendeleev resigned from the University of St. Petersburg. Soon thereafter he worked for the Admiralty and Ministry of War. In 1892 he was appointed treasurer of the Chamber of Standard Weights and Measures, later becoming its chief. In 1899 he introduced the metric system into Russia.
Philosophy and Outlook
Mendeleev saw in science a valuable tool for remaking and modernizing Russia. He saw Russia gaining respectability in the community of nations through scientific activity benefiting mankind. And he saw in science the essential ingredient of the educated mind. However, he rejected science as a panacea for society's ills, believing that science must be complemented by religious and artistic sources of knowledge.
During his last years, Mendeleev defended his atomistic view of matter to the point of denouncing the modern ideas of physics of the divisibility of the atom and the transmutability of the chemical elements. One of these transmuted elements, the 101st in the periodic table, is named mendelevium. Mendeleev died on Jan. 20, 1907.
Although not a definitive study, Daniel Q. Posin, Mendeleyev: The Story of a Great Scientist (1948), is valuable for its broad treatment of Mendeleev's life and for its bibliography of his publications. There are many biographical sketches, but the one by Henry Leicester in Eduard Farber, ed., Great Chemists (1961), is most accurate and is based on Russian sources. A translation of a brief Russian study of Mendeleev is O. N. Pisarzhevsky, Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev: His Life and Work (1954). The 19th-century history of the periodic table is described in great detail by Francis P. Venable in The Development of the Periodic Law (1896), and by A. E. Garrett in The Periodic Law (1909). □