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Deville, Henri Étienne Sainte-Claire

Deville, Henri Étienne Sainte-Claire

(b. St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, 11 March 1818; d. Boulogne-sur-Seine, France, 1 July 1881)


Deville was one of the most prolific and versatile chemists of the nineteenth century, making major contributions in most areas of his science. He and his brother Charles, later a well-known physicist, were sons of the French consul in the Virgin Islands, who was a prominent shipowner. The brothers were educated in Paris, where Henri received his medical degree in 1843. Even before graduation he had been attracted to the study of chemistry by the lectures of Thenard. He established a private laboratory in his own quarters and in 1839 published his first paper, a study of turpentine. Soon after receiving his doctorate in medicine, he followed it with one in science.

In 1845, through the influence of Thenard, Deville was appointed professor of chemistry and dean of the newly established faculty of science of the University of Besançon. Here he established such a reputation that in January 1851 he was chosen as professor of chemistry at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. The facilities for research were at first poor and the instruction elementary. Deville, however, was an excellent teacher and also was active in research. While always interested in teaching beginning students, he greatly improved the research laboratory of the institution. Many outstanding younger chemists were trained by him. From 1853 to 1866 he gave lectures in chemistry at the Sorbonne. Deville was always close to his brother, whose death in 1876 was a heavy blow to him. His health gradually failed, and he retired in 1880. He died the following year.

Deville was essentially an experimentalist and had little interest in chemical theory. He began his laboratory studies at a time when organic chemistry was developing most actively, and his early work was in this field: investigations of turpentine, toluene, and acid anhydrides. However, his analytical skill and his important synthesis of nitrogen pentoxide in 1849 turned his attention to inorganic chemistry. He worked out a process for producing pure aluminum by reducing its salts with sodium. Deville’s methods made both metals readily available and drastically reduced their cost, but he himself did not take much part in their later industrial development. He used the sodium obtained by his method for the preparation of such elements as silicon, boron, and titanium. His investigations of the metallurgy of platinum led to honors from the Russian government. In many of his studies, such as those on the artificial production of natural minerals, Deville employed very high temperatures and became a recognized authority on the use of this technique. His measurements of the vapor densities of compounds at various temperatures helped to confirm Avogadro’s hypothesis. These studies led Deville to his most notable discovery, the dissociation of heated chemical compounds and their recombination at lower temperatures. He heated such substances as water, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen chloride and then cooled them suddenly to recover the decomposition products. This work led to a better understanding of the mechanism of chemical reactions and to significant developments in physical chemistry.


I. Original Works. There is a complete bibliography of Deville’s many individual papers in J. Gay, Henri Sainte-Claire Deville—sa vie et ses travaux (Paris, 1889). His first paper on dissociation is in Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences, 45 (1857), 857–861. II. Secondary Literature. In addition to the book by Gay mentioned above, accounts of Deville are Maurice Daumas, “Henri Sainte-Claire Deville et les debuts de l’industrie d’aluminium,” in Revue d’histoire des sciences, 2 (1949), 352–357; the obituary by Louis Pasteur, in Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences, 93 (1881), 6–9; the paper by R. E. Oesper and P. Lemay, in Chymia, 3 (1950), 205–221; and Sijbren Rienks van der Ley, Iets over de dissociatetheorie van Deville (Groningen, 1870).

Henry M. Leicester

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