Arfvedson, Johann August

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(b. Skagerholms-Bruk, Skaraborgs-Län Sweden, 12 January 1792; d. Hedensö, Sweden, 28 October 1841)


Arfveson was educated at home until 1806, when he enrolled in the mining course at Uppsala. He served as a secretary for the Royal Bureau of Mines at Stockholm; and early in 1817 he entered Berzelius’ laboratory, where he began studies on the chemical analysis of minerals, Before the end of that year Arfvedson had completed research on the oxides of manganese, determining the composition of manganous oxide (MnO) and manganosicoxide (Mn3 O4).Berzelius recognized the outstanding abilities of his student and allowed him to work on the analysis of petalite, a lithium aluminum silicate discovered at Utö, Sweden, in 1800 by José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, the Brazilian scientist and statesman.

Arfvedson isolated a new alkali from petalite, one of lower equivalent weight than any of the alkalies then Known. He and Berzelius named it “lithia”(lithium oxide), since it had been discovered in the mineral kingdom. Arfvedson prepared many of the compounds of the alkali but never succeeded in decomposting it. In 1818 Humphry Davy obtaineda a minute amount of lithium by the eletrolysis of lithium carbonate. In 1822 W. T. Brande obtained larger amounts and named the new metal “lithium.”

In 1819 Arfvedson purchased an estate at Hedensö and pursued his investigations in mineral analysis there. In an 1822 study on the composition of chrysoberyl he isolated another new base (beryllium hydroxide) but mistook it for silica. He attempted to obtain uranium metal by the reduction of uranosic oxide. He did not succeed but did isolate a new oxide, uranous oxide (UO2).

Arfvedson’s business interests in several industrial plants left him little time for chemical research after 1822. In 1821 he became a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences which in the last year of his life awarded him its gold medal for the discovery of lithium.


I. Original Works. Arfvedson’s report of the discovery of lithia appears in “Undersökning af någre vid Utö—jemmalums-brott träffade fossiliar,och ett eget derifunnet eldfast alkali,” in Afhanligar i fysik, kemi,ochmineralogi6 (1818), 145-172; and“Analyes dequelques minéraux de la mine d’Utö en Suède, dans lesquels on a trouvé un nouvel alcali fixe,” in Annalesn de chimie, 2nd ser.,10 (1819),82-107.

An account of the discovery of lithium, with a bibliography of Arfvedson’s published works, is in Mary Elvira Weeks, Discovery of the Element, 6th ed. (Easton, Pa., 1956), 484-488. 495-503. Bibliographies are in Poggendorff.I, 59; and Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers,I,p.89.

II. Secondary Literature. There is an obituary notice in Kungliga Svenska vetenskapsakademiens handlinger (1841), 249-255, and a biographical sketch by H. G. Söderbaum in Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, II (Stockholm, 1920), 165-166. Also see J.R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, IV (London, 1964), 152.

Albert B. Costa