Kahlenberg, Louis Albrecht

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Kahlenberg, Louis Albrecht

(b. Two Rivers, Wisconsin, 27 January 1870; d. Sarasota, Florida, 18 March 1941)


Kahlenberg was the son of Albert Kahlenberg, a butcher who had been a sailor in his youth, and Bertha Albrecht, both immigrants from Germany. He received his early education at the local German Lutheran school and at Two Rivers High School. A short course at Oshkosh Normal School prepared him to teach in a country school near Two Rivers. After two years Kahlenberg attended Milwaukee Normal School for a year, then transferred to the University of Wisconsin in 1890 and received the B.S. with a chemistry major in 1892. A fellowship enabled him to complete his M.S. in 1893.

His interest in the newly developing field of physical chemistry led Kathlenberg to Leipzig, where he studied in Ostwald’s laboratory. His dissertation dealt with the solubility of copper and lead salts in organic acids such as tartrates, a subject he had first sudied at Wisconsin. The Ph.D. was granted summa cum laude in 1895. On returning to Wisconsin, Kahlenberg became instructor in pharmaceutical technique and physical chemistry. A year later he moved from the pharmacy school to the chemistry department, where he became instructor in physical chemistry. He rapidly climbed the academic ladder, becoming a full professor in 1901 and department chairman in 1908.

Kahlenberg began an active reserch program on his return to Wisconsin. Over the years he studied solutions, dialysis, gas electrodes, and the activation of gases by metals, potentimetric titration, boric acid in the treatment of blood poisoning, the use of colloidal gold in treatment of malignancies, and the use of dichloroacetic acid in medicine. He pioneered in the establishment of graduate studies in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, the first Ph.D. being granted to Azariah. T. Lincoln in 1899; the second was awarded to Kahlenberg’s boyhood friend Herman Schlundt in 1901. By the time of his retirement in 1940 Kathleberg had directed the studies of some twenty doctoral candidates.

Kahlenberg’s reserch on nonaqueous solutions soon led him to doubt the worth of Arrhenius’ theory of ionization. He became a leading opponent of the theory and for many years took issue with its supporters. who constituted a sizable majority of American chemists. His opposition was doubtless a factor in the ultimate reexamination of solution theory, which led to such modifications of Arrhenius’ theory as those of Edbye and Hückel. Kahlenberg never accepted such variants and a as consequence of his rigid opposition to ions lost influence in chemical circles.

Althorugh a loyal American, Kahlenberg had a deep love for Germany and was an outspoken opponent of America’s entry into World War I. This position was unpopular at the University of Wisconsin during the war years, and in 1919 Kahlenberg was demoted from his chairmanships of hte chemistry department. He continued his professorship, teaching introductory chemistry to engineers, a course in solution chemistry, and course in the history of chemistry.

Kahlenberg married Lillan Belle Heald, a fellow student at the university, in 1896. They had a daughter and two sons. During the 1920’s Kahlenberg and his son Herman, one of his Ph.D. candidates, opened the Kahleberg Laboratories at Two Rivers, Wisconsin, to produce Equisetene, a skin suture material, and certain other pharmaceuticals developed in the course of his research. The company was later moved to Sarasota, Florida.


I. Original Works. A full bibliography of Kahlenberg’s publications is in N. F. Hall’s biography (see below). The State Historical Society of Wisconsin holds twelve file boxes of Kahlenberg papers relevant to his activities between 1900 and 1939. One box contains articles and addresses; the rest contain correspondence. The University of Wisconsin archives also contain Kathlenberg papers, mostly dealing with his chairmanship of the chemistry department. One file box contains materials relevant to his demotion. There are also three bound volumes of his reprints.

His books are Laboratory Exercises in General chemistry (Madison, Wis., 1907; 9th ed., 1938); Outlines of Chemistry (New York, 1909; rev. ed., 1915); Chemistry and Its Relation to Everyday Life (New York, 1911), written with E. B. Hart; and Qualitative Chemical Analysis (Madison, Wis., 1911; 3rd ed., 1932), written with J. H. Walton.

II. Secondary Literature. The best biography of Kahlenberg is that by his colleague Norris F. Hall, “A Wisconsin Chemical Pioneer—The Scientific Work of Louis Kahlenberg,” in Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters,39 (1949), 83–96, and 40 (1950), 173–183. See also A. J. Ihde and H. A. Schuette, “Early Days of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin,” in Journal of Chemical Education, 29 (1952), 67–72; and A. T. Lincoln, “Louis Kahlenberg,” in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry. News Edition, 16 (1938), 336–337. There is also Encyclopedia of American Biography, new ed., XV (New York, 1942), 166-167. An obituary appeared in The Capital Times (Madison, Wis., 19 Mar. 1941).

Aaron J. Ihde