Erdmann, Otto Linné

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Erdmann, Otto Linné

(b. Dresden, Germany, 11 April 1804; d. Leipzig, Germany, 9 October 1869)


Erdmann was the son of the physician and botanist Carl Gottfried Erdmann. In 1820, after apprenticeship to a pharmacist, he studied medicine at the Medical-Surgical Academy in Dresden; in 1822 he entered the University of Leipzig, where his interest in chemistry was stimulated by L. W. Gilbert, professor of physics. After graduating in medicine in 1824 and qualifying as a university lecturer in 1825, Erdmann devoted the rest of his life to chemistry. In 1827, after a year directing a nickel mine and foundry at Hasserode, he was appointed extraordinary professor, and in 1830 professor, of technical chemistry at Leipzig, where he established his reputation as a teacher and researcher. Erdmann was Rektor Magnificus of Leipzig from 1848 to 1849, and from 1835 he was a director, and eventually chairman, of the Leipzig-Dresden Railway Company. A prominent Freemason, he devoted much time to the improvement of the cultural facilities and technological prosperity of the city of Leipzig. He married Clara Jungnickel, by whom he had three sons and a daughter.

The Saxon government was persuaded by Erdmann to build chemical laboratories at the university; and after they were opened in 18421 Erdmann was able to compete with Liebig at Giessen and attract large numbers of students, many of whom achieved eminence, e.g., C. F. Gerhardt.2 He toured Germany and France in 1836 in order to meet other chemists, including his future collaborator, R. F. Marchand. Erdmann visited England in 1842, and he was a voluble spokesman for noninterference with the individual chemist’s right to freedom of choice between atomic and equivalent weights at the important Karlsruhe Conference in 1860.3 He greatly enriched chemical communications by the creation in 1834 of the Journal für praktische Chemie. His textbooks, and especially his encyclopedia of industrial chemistry, helped to educate the revolutionary generation of Kolbe and Kekulé. To this younger German generation, however, he came to typify the stereotyped, unimaginative chemistry against which they rebelled so passionately and fruitfully.

Erdmann’s researches, which spanned mineralogical, industrial, inorganic, and organic chemistry, were primarily descriptive and analytical. In organic chemistry, between 1840 and 1841 (simultaneously with Laurent, who corrected him), he investigated the nature of indigotin and prepared a number of derivatives that were important later, including isatin and tetrachloro-p-benzoquinone. 4 He subsequently investigated and isolated hematoxylin from logwood 5 and euxanthic acid from Indian yellow. 6

Erdmann’s confusion over the empirical formula of isatin led him skeptically to redetermine the atomic weight of carbon in 1841. In collaboration with Marchand he supported Dumas and Stas in lowering its atomic weight from Berzelius’ value of 76.43 (O = 100) to 75.08. 7 Subsequently, until the death of Marchand in 1850, they made a number of accurate redeterminations. 8 In most cases they obtained values significantly different from those established by Berzelius and sufficiently close to whole numbers to persuade them that there might be some truth in Prout’s hypothesis that atomic weights were multiples of a common unit. There followed a dispute with Berzelius, who abhorred Multiplenfieber, in which Erdmann maintained an empirical position that chemists should be guided only by accurate experiments.9


1. O. L. Erdmann, “Das chemische Laboratorium der Universität Leipzig,” in Journal für praktische Chemie, 31 (1844), 65–75, with plans.

2. E. Grimaux and C. Gerhardt, Charles Gerhardt, so uie, son oeuvre, sa correspondance 1816–1856 (Paris, 1900), pp. 19–21, 85, 218, 264–265, 449, 452.

3. R. Anschütz, August Kekulé (Berlin, 1929), I, 671–688.

4. O. L. Erdmann, “Untersuchungen über den Indigo,” in Journal für parktische Chemie, 19 (1840), 321–362; 22 (1841), 257–299.

5. O. L. Erdmann, “Ueber das Hämtoxylin,” ibid., 26 (1842), 193–216, also in Reports of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 11 (1842), 33–34.

6. O. L. Erdmann, “Urber das Haune indien und die darin enthaltene organische Säure (Euxanthinsaureii),” in Journal für praktische Chemie, 33 (1844), 190–209.

7. O. L. Erdmann and R. F. Marchand, “Ueber das Atomgewicht des Kohlenstoffes,” ibid., 23 (1841), 159–189.

8. O. L. Erdmann, “Ueber das Atomgewicht des Wasserstoffes und Calciums,” ibid., 26 (1842), 461–478; “... Calciums, Chlors, Kalitums und Silbers,” ibid., 31 (1844), 257–279; “... Kupfers, Quecksilbers, und Schwefels,” ibid., 385–402; “Eisens,” ibid., 33 (1844), 1–6.

9. O. L. Erdmann, “Rechfertigung einiger Atomgewichtsbestimmungen,” ibid., 37 (1846), 65–80; “Einige Bemerkungen uber die Atomgewichte der einfachen Korper,” ibid., 55 (1852), 193–203.


I. Original Works. The Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers assigns 96 papers to Erdmann, of which 17 were joint researches with Marchand. Unrecorded are several papers on artistic subjects and his many editorial notes to his journals: Die neuesten Forschungen im Gebiete der technischen und ökonomischen Chemie, 18 vols. (1828–1833), more familiarly known, through its second title page, as Journal für technische und ökonomische Chemie. In 1834 this amalgamated with the well-established Journal für Chemie und Physik and was edited jointly by Erdmann and F. W. Schweigger-Seidel as Journal für praktische Chemie, 1–9 (1834–1836). Volumes 10–15 (1837–1838) jointly with Marchand, vols. 51–57 (1839–1850) jointly with Marchand, vols. 51–57 (1850–1852) alone, and vols. 58–108 (1853–1869) jointly with G. Werther. The journal was continued after Erdmann’s death by Kolbe. Other papers by Erdmann, together with extensive analyses of their contents, may be traced in Berzelius’ Jahres-ericht über die Fortschritte der physischen Wissenschaften, 7 (1828)-25 (1846) and its continuation, Jahresbericht uber die Fortschritte der reinen, pharmaceutischen und technischen Chemie (1849–1870); see annual indexes.

Erdmann published the following books: Ueber das Nickle (Leipzig, 1827); Lehrbuch der Chemie (Leipzig, 1828; 3rd ed., 1840; 4th ed., 1851), trans. into Dutch (Amsterdam, 1836); Grundriss der allgemeinen Waarenkunde (Leipzig, 1833; 2nd ed., 1852; 3rd ed., 1857), with many posthumously revised eds. (after the 7th ed., 1871, edited by C. R. Krönig, it became known as “Erdmann Krönig” and, with a succession of editors, reached the 17th and final ed. in 1925); and Ueber das Studium der Chemie (Leipzig, 1861). He was an editor of Universel-Lexicon der Handelswissenschaften, 3 vols. (Leipzig, 1837–1839).

The Karl Marx University, Leipzig, holds 19 of Erdmann’s letters, written between 1828 and 1869. There are several letters to Berzelius in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm.

II. Secondary Literature. The basic sources of information concerning Erdmann’s career are the unctuous obituaries by H. Kolbe, in Journal für praktische Chemie, 108 (1869), 449–458-an adapted and unacknowledged English version by A. W. Williamson, in Journal of the Chemical Society, 23 (1870), 374–381. See also Sitzungsberichte der K. Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Munchen (1870), pt. 1, 415–417; and J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, IV, 397. An assessment of Erdmann’s atomic weights may be made from G. F. Becker, Atomic Weight Determinations: A Digest of the Investigations Published Since 1814, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections: Constants of Nature, pt. IV (Washington, D.C., 1880); and F.W. Clarke, A Recalculation of the Atomic Weights, Constants of Nature, pt. V (Washington, D.C., 1882; 2nd ed., 1897). For a very important critique of Grundriss der allgemeinen Waarenkunde, see R. A. C. E. Erlenmeyer, in Zeitschrift für Chemie und Pharmacie, 4 (1861), 217–220, 251–256, 284–287, 320–323, 385–386.

Contemporary opinions of Erdmann may be found in R. Anschutz, August Kekulé (Berlin, 1929), I, passim; E. Grimaux and C. Gerhardt, Charles Gerhardt, sa vie, son oeuvre, sa correspondance 1816–1856 (Paris, 1900), pp. 19–21, 85, 218, 264–265, 449, 452; and O. Wallach, ed., Briefwechsel zwischen J. Berzelius und F. Wöhler, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1901), Passim.

W.H. Brock