Chenevix, Richard

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Chenevix, Richard

(b. Ballycommon, near Dublin, Ireland, 1774; d. Paris, France, 5 April 1830),

chemistry, mineralogy.

Chenevix, of Huguenot ancestry was educated at the University of Glasgow. Soon thereafter he revealed his abilities as an analytical chemist in his analyses of a new variety of lead ore (1801); of arsenates of copper (1801); and of sapphire, ruby, and corundum (1802). The publication of Remarks Upon Chemical Nomenclature, According to the Principles of the French Nelogists in 1802 won for him the reputation of a pioneer in that field.

At the same time, Chenevix was acquiring notoriety for his heated attacks upon his scientific colleagues, especially those in Germany. He was particularly critical of the German school of Naturphilosophie: He took to task Oersted’s Materialien zu einer Chemie des neunzehnten Jahruhunderts (1803), in which the dualistic system of the Hungarian chemist J. J. Winterl was defended, and opposed the dynamical theory of crystallization of the mineralogist Christian Samuel Weiss (1804). His pugnacity was to lead him into the most disastrous enterprise of his career.

In 1803 an anonymous handbill was circulated among British scientists. It announced the isolation of a new chemical element, palladium or “new silver,” and offered the metal for sale. Chenevis, believing the announcement a fraud, purchased the complete stock. He set about analyzing it with the preconceived notion that it was an alloy of platinum and mercury. After a series of laborious experiments, he concluded that palladium was in fact an amalgam of platinum made in some peculiar way. His report to the Royal Society caused a sensation. Not long after, Wollaston read to the society a paper in which he declared himself the author of the handbill and the discoverer of two new elements in crude platinum ore-namely palladium and rhodium. About 1804, with his scientific reputation badly damaged, Chenevix left England and went to France, where he lived for the remainder of his life.

In these years he published a significant paper, “Sur quelques méthodes minéralogiques” (1808), in which he disputed Abraham Gottlob Werner’s classification of minerals by their chemical composition. He himself adopted R. J. Haüy’s criterion of classification, the physical characteristics of minerals. In 1809 he turned again to chemistry, developing a method for the preparation of acetone by the distillation of acetates. Increasingly, however, Chenevix turned to literary work and wrote several novels, plays, and poems.


1. Original Works. Chenevix’ articles about Oersted and Weiss are in Annales de chimie, 50 (1804), 173–199, and 52 (1804), 307–339. His major works are Remarks Upon Chemical Nomenclature, According to the Priniciples of the French Neologists (London, 1802); and “Sur quelques méthodes minéralogiques,” in Annales de chimie, 65 (1808), 5–43, 133–160, 225–277.

II. Secondary Literature. On the palladium incident, see A. M. White and H. B. Friedman. “On the Discovery of Palladium, “in journal of Chemical Education, 9 (1932), 236–245; and D. Reilley, “Richard Chenevix (1774–1830) and the Discovery of Palladium,’ ibid., 32 (1955). 37–39.

H. A. M. Snelders