Matthiessen, Augustus

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(b. London, England, 2 January 1831; d. London, 6 October 1870)


As a young child Matthiessen suffered a seizure that left him handicapped with a permanent twitching of the right hand. As a result he was considered unfit physically for most careers and was sent to learn farming. During his three-year stay on a farm, he nevertheless developed an interest in chemistry. At this time agricultural chemistry was attracting wide attention as a result of the writings of Liebig. It therefore was natural for Matthiessen to choose the University of Giessen to continue his education in chemistry, and he took his Ph.D. there in 1853.

From 1853 to 1857 Matthiessen worked in Bunsen’s laboratory at the University of Heidelberg. Under Bunsen’s direction Matthiessen prepared significant quantities of lithium, strontium, magnesium, and calcium by electrolysis of their fused salts. He then carried out a study with Kirchhoff on the electrical conductivity of these metals and of sodium and potassium.

In 1857 Matthiessen left Heidelberg and returned to London. He worked for a few months in Hofmann’s laboratory at the Royal College of Chemistry. Here he studied the steps in the action of nitrous acid on aniline. Soon he moved to a small laboratory in his home and worked there for four years. At this time he began one of his most important studies, on the chemistry of narcotine and related opium alkaloids. In 1861 Matthiessen was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He held the lectureship in chemistry at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School from 1862 to 1868, and then became a lecturer at St. bartholomew’s Medical School, both schools of the University of London. During this time he pursued research on the electrical, physical, and chemical properties of metals and their alloys. From 1862 to 1865 he served on the British Association Committee on the Standards of Electrical Resistance. Augustus Matthiessen committed suicide on 6 October 1870.


I. Original Works. A list of Matthiessen’s publications can be found in the Royal Society’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers. Among his important works are the following: “On the Electric Conducting Power of the Metals of the Alkalies and Alkaline Earths,” in Philosophical Magazine, 13 (1857), 81–90; “On the Electric Conducting Power of Copper and its Alloys,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society,11 (1860–1862), 126–131; and a series of papers on the chemical constitution of the opium alkaloids.

II. Secondary Literature. Obituaries of Matthiessen appeared in: Nature,2 (1870), 517–518; Journal of the Chemical Society, 24 (1871), 615–617; American Journal of Science, 101 (1871), 73–74; and Proceedings of the Royal Society, 18 (1870), 111. An account of the details of his suicide appeared in The Times (London), 8 October 1870, p. 5, col. 5.

Daniel P. Jones

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Matthiessen, Augustus

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