Gren, Friedrich Albrecht Carl

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Gren, Friedrich Albrecht Carl

(b. Bernburg, Germany, 1 May 1760; d. Halle, Germany, 26 November 1798:)


The eldest son of a Swedish immigrant hatter, Gren was destined for the clergy. But the death of his father forced him to abandon his formal education and prepare for a pharmaceutical career. After an apprenticeship characterized by oppressive servitude and his own private study of botany and chemistry, Gren went to Offenbach am Main as a journey man pharmacist in 1779. For health reasons, he proceeded to Erfurt the following year. There he administered the apothecary shop owned by Wilhelm B. Trommsdorff, professor of chemistry, botany, and materia medica, and father of the chemist Johann B. Trommsdorff.

Instructed and encouraged by his employer, Gren prepared a manuscript for a chemistry text and entered into correspondence with Lorenz von Crell, editor of Germany’s leading chemical journal. Upon the elder Trommsdorff’s death in 1782, Gren first attempted to establish a chemical factory in Bernburg, then entered Helmstedt University, in the duchy of Brunswick. There he assisted Crell (who had arranged a scholarship for him), studied medicine and science, and lectured on chemistry.

In 1783 Gren went on to Halle University, where he continued his studies, gave chemistry lectures, and served as research assistant to Wenceslaus Karsten, professor of mathematics and physics. He took an M.D. in 1786 and a Ph.D. in 1787 and then quickly rose to professor of physics and chemistry in Halle’s medical faculty in 1788. He remained in this post until his death ten years later.

Gren made his mark on German scientific life as an author of texts, a journal editor and a theorist in chemistry and physics. Both his sense of the inadequacy of existing works and his need for additional income led him to devote much time to writing textbooks. The books were well received, some continuing to appear long after his death. Chemistry was the subject of his first text. The Systematisches Handbuch der gesammten Chemie (1787-1790;3rd ed., 1806). He subsequently published Grudriss der Naturlehre (1788; 6th ed., 1820), Grundriss der Pharmakologie (1790), Handbuch der Pharmakologie (1791-1792; 3rd ed.. 1814-1815) and Grundriss der Chemie (1796; 4th ed., 1818; English translation, 1800).

Inspired by the example of his former teacher and patron Crell, Gren founded a periodical for the “mathematical and chemical branches of natural science.” Under his editorship, the Journal der Physik (1790-1794), which was succeeded by the Neues Journal der Physik (1795-1797), soon became Germany’s most exciting scientific journal. After Gren’s death, it was continued by his colleague Ludwig Wilhelm Gilbert, and subsequent editors, as the Annalen der Physik (1799-present).

Gren first attracted attention as a theorist by proposing that phlogiston has negative weight in his Dissertatio inauguralis physico-medica sistens observationes et experimenta circa genesin aëris fixi et phlogisticati (1786). His pride in the phlogiston theory’s German origins apparently led him to try to rescue it from the difficulties created by the new discoveries with gases. Although equally nationalistic, most German chemists rejected Gren’s proposal as absurd, embracing instead Richard Kirwan’s system, which identified hydrogen as phlogiston. Undaunted, Gren continued to campaign for the negative weight of phlogiston until 1790, when the physicist Johann Tobias Mayer persuaded him to abandon the view with arguments based on the motion of pendulums.

That same year Gren announced that the empirical cornerstone of Lavoisier’s antiphlogistic theory lacked grounding—pure red calx of mercury (mercuric oxide) did not yield any gas when it was reduced. Two years later his claim was supported by Johann Friedrich Westrumb, a widely respected experimentalist. A bitter debate ensued between Lavoisier’s German proponents (notably Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstädt and Martin Heinrich Klaproth in Berlin) and the German phlogistonists (notably Gren, Westrumb, and J.B. Trommsdorff). The turning point in the antiphlogistic revolution in Germany came by mid-1793, when Gren and his allies were discredited.

As a consequence of this defeat, Gren soon adopted the compromise phlogiston theory of Johann Gottfried Leonhardi and Jeremias Benjamin Richter. This theory differed but slightly from Lavoisier’s, treating phlogiston (the basis of light) as a component of all substances which could be oxidized. Gren’s support of this theory helped prepare the way for the ultimate acceptance of Lavoisier’s theory. In the mid-1790’s, Gren also helped prepare the way for the penetration of Kant’s “dynamic system” into German chemistry and physics by giving it very favorable, if brief, attention in his publications.


I. Original Works.A complete list of Gren’s publications through 1795 appears in his autobiography in Johann Kaspar Philipp Elwert, Nachrichten von dem Leben und den Schriften jeztlebender teutscher Aerzte, Wündärzte, Theirärzte, Apotheker und Naturforscher (Hildesheim, 1799), pp. 171-185.

II.Secondary Literature. For information on Gren see Wolfram Kaiser and Karl-Heinz Krosch, “Zur Geschichte der Medizinischen Fakultä der Universität Halle,” in Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift: Mathematischnaturwissenschaftlichje Reihe, 13 (1964), 160-176; Dietrich Ludwig Gustav Karsten, “Kurze Nachrichten von dem Leben des Professors Gren zu Halle,” in Neue Schriften, 2 (1799), 404-413; an article by Hans Schimank in Neue deutsche Biographie, VII (Berlin, 1966), 45-46 (Gren was a Lutheran, not a Calvinist as Schimank maintians): J.R. Paritngton, A History of Chemistry, III (London, 1962), 575-577, 620-625, 632-636; Alexander Nicolaus Scherer, “Friedrich Albrecht Carl Gren,” in Allgemeines Journal der Chemie, 2 (1799), 357-416, 615-618; and Johann Bartholomai Trommsdorff, “Kurze Biographie des verewigten Friedrich Albrecht Carl Gren, in Journal der Pharmacie, 6 (1799), 367-375.

For further information on Gren’s role in the antiphlogistic revolution, see Karl Hufbauer, “The Formation of the German Chemical Community, 1700-1795,” diss. (Univ. of Cal., Berkely, 1970), chs. 6 and 7.

Karl Hufbauer