Spring, Walthère Victor

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(b. Liège, Belgium, 6 March 1848; d. Tilff, Belgium, 17 July 1911), chemistry, physics.

Spring was the son of Antoine Spring, professor of physiology at the medical school of the University of Liège, a competent man of science, and author of a body of published work in medicine, botany, and anthropology. The scholarly physican was disappointed by his son’s slow progress in school and by the boy’s dislike of classical languages, in which the father was proficient. Spring failed his university entrance examination; and rather than endure his father’s reproaches, he left home and found employment as a gunsmith. In the workshop his manual dexterity was well-paid and further developed. He repeated his examinations, this time successfully, and in 1867 enrolled at the school of mines of the University of Liège, from which he graduated with a diploma in mining engineering in 1872. This, however, was merely preparation for a career in experimental chemistry, toward which he had been strongly influenced by Jean Stas, an eminent Belgian chemist and friend of the family. Guided by Stas’s advice, Spring went to study under Kekulé at the University of Bonn. Here he also worked in physics with Clausius, who impressed on him the need for disciplined patience and the ability to sustain drudgery while in quest of a long-range objective. Kekulé’s work in organic chemistry showed Spring the value of intuition and imagination.

In 1875, after two years at Bonn, Spring returned to Liège to teach theoretical physics at the university. He was appointed assistant professor of organic chemistry in 1876 and full professor in 1880, a post that he retained for the rest of his life. Early in his career Spring was concurrently an engineer with the Belgian Bureau of Mines. The Belgian Academy of Sciences elected him a corresponding member in 1877, titular member in 1884, and president in 1899. He was permanent examiner for the Military School of Belgium from 1884 to 1906.

Spring’s earliest researches dealt with the molecular structures of the polythionic acids. He followed Kekulé in denying the possibility of more than one valence to an atom. This principle was an erroneous extension to all atoms of Kekulé’s productive theory of the linking of carbon atoms—which are almost the only ones to have that property. Kekulé and his followers were therefore required to write formulas for complex radicals in form of chains—for example, H-O-O-S-O-O-H for sulfuric acid. Spring’s early papers on the inorganic chemistry of sulfur are flawed by too slavish adherence to this spurious principle. He nevertheless produced a valuable series of papers on the oxyacids of sulfur and on the polythionates, in which he synthesized new compounds and found new chemical reactions.

Spring’s most important work, however, was in physical chemistry. He was prompted to investigate the effect of high pressure on the compaction of powdered solids by the lively controversy on the flow of glaciers that was then arousing great interest, fanned by such masters of the polemic arts as Tyndall, Tait, and Ruskin. Spring found that sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate, and even sawdust, when subjected to great compression in a screw press, become hard, solid masses of unusually high density. These observations were the beginning of a series of researches in which he cleverly used the same experimental technique to investigate the effects of pressure on phase equilibria, on chemical equilibria, on the chemical reactions of solids, and on the ability or inability of one metal to diffuse into another. In this way he was able to explain the formation of solid solutions in certain alloys. Geologists also were interested by his discoveries that the application of high pressure could transform peat into lignite and that layers of clay between which organic humus is introduced can, by the same means, produce schist rocks.

In 1870 Tyndall created much public interest by his partial explanation of the blue color of the sky. It stimulated Spring to ask a cognate question about the color of water. After much labor he succeeded in observing the actual color of natural and of chemically pure waters, as well as of aqueous solutions and alcohols. These investigations required the exercise of his utmost skill as an experimentalist. By ingenious techniques he produced optically empty water, free from all traces of suspended particles. The water was to be contained in glass tubes fifteen millimeters in diameter and up to twenty-six meters long. The difficulty lay in making a tube of this length coaxial with the beam of light that is required to pass through it. Almost six weeks of work was required for the alignment of the apparatus. Spring succeeded in completing these exacting experiments, and reported that the natural color of water is “a pure cerulean blue similar to that of the sky at its zenith when seen from a high mountain.” He discovered that convection currents, caused by differences of temperature as small as 0.6°C., were enough to render a twenty-six-meter column of water opaque to transmitted light. In extensive discussions of the use of a Tyndall beam to detect the presence of colloidal particles in water, Spring supplied ideas and emphasis that contributed significantly to the development of the ultramicroscope of Siedentopf and Zsigmondy.

In another series of researches Spring found that soap solutions perform their detergent action by preferential adsorption of the soap on the particles of dirt, which are thereby detached and suspended in water.

Spring’s work was characterized by the selection of problems dealing with entire natural phenomena that had not yet received adequate explanation, by his originality of viewpoint combined with experimental ingenuity and manipulative skills, and by the clarity and force of his writing. The versatility of his interests was also remarkable.


Most of Spring’s papers were published in the Bulletin de l’Académie royale de Belgique Classe des sciences. His Oeuvres complètes, comprising more than 100 papers, was published by the Société Chimique de Belgique in 2 vols. (Brussels, 1914–1923).

The memoir by L. Crismer, prefixed to vol. I of the Oeuvres complètes, is the principal source of biographical information. Briefer sketches are F. Lionetti and M. Mager, in Journal of Chemical Education. 28 (1951), 604–605; and F. Swarts, in Chemikerzeitung, 35 (1911), 949–950.

Sydney Ross