Wallerius, Johan Gottschalk

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(b. Stora Mellösa, Nerke, Sweden, 11 July 1709; d. Uppsala, Sweden, 16 November 1785), chemistry, mineralogy.

Wallerius was the son of Erik Wallerius, a Lutheran minister, and Elisabet Tranaea. At the age of five he studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew at home with his older brothers. Wallerius entered the Gymnasium in Strängnäs in 1722, enrolled at the University of Uppsala in 1725, and received a master’s degree in philosophy in 1731. He next studied medicine and in the same year defended a thesis in anatomy, receiving an assistant professorship in medicine at Lund in 1732. He defended his doctoral dissertation there in 1735; but toward the end of the year he returned to Uppsala, where the Medical Faculty granted him the degree veniadocendi. Wallerius practiced medicine and in 1737 was appointed superintendent at Danemarks, a spanear Uppsala, where he analyzed the spring water. As early as 1732 he had shown an interest in mining science and mineraology: en route to Lund through the Swedish mining district he studied mines and blast furnaces and collected mineral specimens. These latter formed the base of his private mineral collection, which ultimately amounted to over 4,000 specimens.

While at Lund, Wallerius studied the extensive mineral collection of Kilian Stobaeus and the famous royal collections in Copenhagen. This experience proved valuable when, at Uppsala, he had to teach chemistry to students of mining science as well as of medicine. For this purpose he installed a small private laboratory when he demonstrated chemical and pharmaceutical reactions for the medical students and where the future mining chemists could practice assaying. All participants in the course were free to ask questions and discuss the experiments. This attitude was new, and the number of students taking the course increased. The interest in chemistry at Uppsala during this period owed much to Wallerius’ method of teaching.

In November 1741, Wallerius was appointed assistant professor of medicine at Uppsala, with responsibility for lectures on materia medica and later on physiology and anatomy as well. He also continued his lectures and experiments in chemistry and mineralogy. His research led to Mineralogia eller Mineralriket (1747), his first great work, which was received as an outstanding handbook of contemporary knowledge; never before had such a wealth of minerals been presented so systematically. Wallerius’ clear and precise descriptions, which gave more weight to essential chemical properties than to exterior appearance, opened a new epoch in mineralogy. The book became widely known in Europe through translations into German, French, Russian, and (later) Latin, and served as a model for later works. The following year Wallerius published Hydrologia eller Wattu-Riket (1748), in which he tried to classify different kinds of water.

Wallerius was appointed the first professor of chemistry in Sweden, at Uppsala, in 1750; he continued to be responsible for metallurgy and pharmacy. Although chemistry had been taught at Uppsala for more than a century, it remained a minor subject within the Medical Faculty and lacked a spokesman of its own. The authorities used this situation as an excuse not to build a laboratory. When the chair of chemistry was placed within the Philosophical Faculty and the curriculum became part of the examination for the candidate’s degree in philosophy, however, the professor also was obliged to examine the medical students and to give courses for future mining chemists. Rooms suitable for lectures had therefore to be furnished, and this need led to the construction of the university’s first chemical institute.

Wallerius’ courses included laboratory periods, experiments, and lectures. These were later published as Chemia physicae, in three volumes, which represents a summary of contemporary knowledge about chemical substances: acids, alkalies, salts, sulfur, bitumen and other combustible materials, semimetals, and metals. The work begins with a brief history of chemistry and presents the system of chemical symbols then in use, as well as a detailed description of the available chemical apparatus and the procedures as Elementa metallurgiae, speciatim chemicae (Stockholm, 1768), “which …has cost me innumerable experiments and much trouble.’

In accord with the utilitarian tendencies of the time, Wallerius, as professor of chemistry, was called upon to show what his knowledge could contribute to economic life. Mining chemists had already demonstrated the advantages of chemistry applied to mining; and Wallerius’ interest in agriculture naturally led him to pursue agricultural chemistry, especially since agriculture was of great importance for the national economy. His research proved so basic and of such scope that he was called the father of agricultural chemistry. His principal work in this field was Agriculturae fundamenta chemica, Åkerbrukets kemiska grunder (1761), which was published in Latin and Swedish, in parallel columns, and was later translated into German, French, Spanish, and English. Wallerius established as a fundamental, necessary principle that agricultural chemistry should be based on comparative study of the chemical composition not only of plants but also of the earth in which they grow.

Unsatisfactory working conditions in the laboratory undermined Wallerius’ health; and deafness that had begun when he was young increasingly worsened. Finally, serious symptoms of illness forced him to request early retirement, which was granted in 1767. He was allowed to retain his salary in recognition of his thirty-four years devoted to the teaching of chemistry.

After his retirement Wallerius bought a farm outside Uppsala and, by actively applying his chemical theories concerning agriculture, established a model farm. These experiences are collected in Rön, rörande landtbruket. Om svenska åkerjordartenas egenskaper och skiljemerken samt deras förbättring genom tienlig jordblanning (“Observations of Agriculture” 1779), which contains an essay on the qualities and differences of Swedish soils and their improvement by suitable mixing that was awarded a prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.

Wallerius was by no means infatuated with innovation in chemistry, and he stubbornly held outdated beliefs. In Tankar om verldenes, i synnerhet jordenes danande och ändring (“Thoughts on the Creation and Change of the World, Particularly of the Earth” : 1776), which was translated into many languages, he assigned the highest authority to the biblical account of the history of creation. In chemistry he never entirely freed himself from the Becher-Stahl philosophical-chemical doctrine. Thus he became known not through new discoveries but, rather, for the new ways in which he applied chemistry to agriculture.


I. Original Works. Wallerius’ numerous publications have appeared in various eds., and some were translated into several languages. J. R. Partington has compiled a good and extensive bibliography in A History of Chemistry, III (1962), 169 – 170, which also includes the titles of the many dissertations over which Wallerius presided and that have been printed in Disputationum academicarum fasciculus primus cum annotationibus (Uppsala, 1780) and … fasciculus secundus (Uppsala, 1781). It can be completed from Wallerius’ autobiography, Curriculum vitae Johan. Gotschalk Wallerii, which ends with a bibliography that he compiled. This autobiography has been published in its entirety, with intro. and English summary, by Nils Zenzén, in Lychnos (1953), 235 – 259.

II. Secondary Literature. See C. E. Bergstrand, Johan Gottschalk Wallerius som landtbrukskemist och praktisk jordbrukare (“…Wallerius as Agricultural Chemist and Practical Farmer” Stockholm, 1885); T. Frängsmyr, Geologi och skapelsetro (“Geology and the Belief in Creation” Uppsala, 1969); Hugo Olsson, Kemiens historia i Sverige intill år 1800 (Uppsala, 1971), 108 – 115, 179 – 182, 319 – 321; C. W. Oseen, “En episod i den svenska kemiens historia,” in Lychnos (1940), 73 – 85; J.R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, III (London. 1962), 169 – 172; E. Svedmark, “Några anteckningar om Johan Gottschalk Wallerius” (“Some Notes on …Wallerius”), in Geologiska föreningens i Stockholm förhandlingar, 7 (1885): and Nils Zenzén. “Johan Gottschalk Wallerius and Axel Fredrik Cronstedt,” in Sten Lindroth, ed., Swedish Men of Science (Stockholm, 1952), 92 – 104.

Uno Boklund

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