Zelinskii, Nikolay Dmitrievich

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(b. 6 February 1861, Tiraspol, Russia [later Moldavia];

d. 31 July 1953, Moscow, Russia), organic synthesis and catalysis; petrochemistry, biochemistry. For the original article on Zelinskii, see DSB vol. 14.

In post-1970 publications and articles about Zelinskii, especially in those of the post-perestroika period, great attention is placed on shedding light on his private life during his student years, his intense scientific work abroad, and his contacts with colleagues. The archival materials relating to Zelinskii’s legacy, published in the early 2000s, allow scholars to place different priorities on his creative output. Nevertheless, it is necessary to supplement this published information with facts relating to the early years of Zelinskii’s life and activities (for example, in Soviet times it was unacceptable to make reference to the fact that he was of noble birth). The material below adds significantly to the knowledge of Zelinskii’s private life, and to the development of his career. In some respects, it also broadens scholars’ knowledge about his creative legacy.

New Biographical Information. Zelinskii’s father, Dmitry Osipovich Zelinskii, was descended from hereditary nobility of the Volyn’ province. His great-grandfather on his mother’s side was a Turk, taken captive as a child by soldiers of A. V. Suvorov in 1790 during the storming of the city of Izmail in the course of the Russo-Turkish war, and given the last name of Vasilev.

Nikolay lost his father and mother at an early age. They died of tuberculosis in 1863 and 1865, respectively. The orphaned boy was raised by his grandmother, Maria Petrovna Vasil’eva and received his initial education at home. Subsequently he studied in a district school in the town of Tiraspol, and then in the famous Richelieu gymnasium in Odessa, which, although it was distinguished by the high level of its instructional staff, provided its graduates with an education predominantly in the arts. The young man’s interest in natural sciences was awakened by I. M. Sechenov, whose public lectures on physiology were given in the 1870s at Novorossiysk (later Odessa) University, and which were attended by his grandmother, together with her grandson. Precisely for this reason, having finished the gymnasium, Zelinskii entered the Physics and Mathematics Department at Novorossiysk University. In the 1880s the instructors in the department were such leading lights of Russian natural sciences as the chemist A. A. Verigo, the zoologist Alexander O. Kovalevsky, the microbiologist and immunologist I. I. Mechnikov, the physiologist Ilya M. Sechenov, the physicist Nikolay A. Umov, and others. There is no question that these learned men exerted a powerful influence on the formation of Zelinskii’s views and on the breadth of his scientific outlook.

Zelinskii’s first trips abroad played a significant role in his subsequent scientific work. During his graduate work in German scientific centers in 1885–1886, Zelinskii worked out an original method of treating acids and their derivatives with a-bromine, a method that has entered the history of science as the “Hell-Volhard-Zelinskii reaction.” In Victor Meyer’s Göttingen laboratory he also worked out a new system of obtaining stereoisomeric dimethyl-succinic acids, which served as the beginning of wide-ranging stereochemical investigations by Zelinskii, and which became the basis of his doctoral thesis.

Zelinskii’s second trip to Leipzig also belongs to the Odessa period of his scholarly activity. This time Zelinskii spent the entire summer semester of 1890 with Wilhelm Ostwald. The work in the Leipzig laboratory helped the young scientist to master experimental techniques in the area of electroconductivity (which found its reflection in his doctoral dissertation and publications examining halogenid solutions of alkal metals) and other areas of physical chemistry. As a result, Zelinskii became one of the pioneers in the study of the electrical conductivity of nonaqueous solutions of mineral salts. In the following years, apparently under the influence of Ostwald, Zelinskii developed an interest in working in the area of organic catalysis. It was to Ostwald that his chemistry students in the physics and mathematics faculty of Moscow University went for their graduate training, among them, S. G. Krapivin, A. V. Rakovsky, A. V. Speransky, and N. A. Shilov.

It is also absolutely necessary to supplement the Moscow period of Zelinskii’s activities with new biographical information. At Moscow University he took it upon himself to give a basic course in organic chemistry for students of natural sciences in the physics and mathematics department, and he took general charge of their practical training in organic and analytical chemistry. For a number of years (1899–1904) Zelinskii gave a course on organic chemistry for students of the medical faculty. In addition, he was actively engaged in public life. In 1900 higher education courses for women, established originally in 1872 by V. I. Ger’e of Moscow University, were reopened. In conjunction with these courses, Zelinskii organized a chair of organic chemistry, took charge of it, and brought in his followers to teach the courses. In 1908 he took part in founding the public A. L. Shaniavsky University. Through his efforts the Moscow laboratory of the Ministry of Finance was organized (1903) and headed by Zelinskii. He also took an active part in the work of natural science societies, such as the Society of Lovers of the Natural Sciences, Anthropology, and Ethnography; the Kh. S. Ledentsov Society for the welfare of experimental sciences and their practical application (starting in 1909); the Russian Physical and Chemical Society (the RFKhO, of which he was a member from 1887), which in 1932 became the All-Union D. I. Mendeleev Chemical Society (VKhO), and in which he was a member of the presidium from its inception, the chairman of the Moscow branch from 1933 to 1945, and, from 1946, the honorary chairman of this branch. For sixty years, Zelinskii was connected to the Moscow Society of Natural Studies, a member from 1893, and president from 1933 to 1953.

In 1937 the public University of Physical Chemistry and Chemical Technology, named after Zelinskii, entered the All-Union Chemical Society. Its aim was to raise the qualifications of the society members and of the workers in the field of technical engineering. At the same time scientific research for industry took place here. During World War II (1941–1945) the university carried on work relating to the defense of the country. Zelinskii, as the honorary chairman of the academic council of the university, took active part in the university’s activities.

The brief St. Petersburg period of Zelinskii’s career also deserves some clarification. In 1911 the presidium of the Moscow University council was dismissed in corpore by order of the Ministry of Public Education. To protest such a violent act against the autonomy of the university, more than one hundred of its professors resigned. Zelinskii also left, as a sign of his solidarity with his colleagues. He taught for a few months at Shaniavsky University, and then left for St. Petersburg at the invitation of the minister of finance Vladimir N. Kokovtsov, who offered him the position of chair of commodity research in the Economics Department of the St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute. Within the bounds of the central laboratory of the Ministry of Finances he was able to continue his experimental investigations.

Research on Practical Problems. The range of scientific problems undertaken by Zelinskii in the course of his entire life was unusually broad. In this context one should also mention his work connected to the exploitation of the country’s natural resources, including the exploration of the rich reserves of Glauber’s salt in the Kara-Bogaz Gol; his study of sapropel in the Balkhash region (1913), and other sapropels as a means of obtaining light and heavy oil (1925–1933); and his work in the area of shale oil, in particular on the removal of sulfur.

An important area of investigation was to solve the problem of synthesizing Soviet rubber. In 1933 a specialized laboratory was created in the Chemistry Department of Moscow University. Under the direct leadership of Zelinskii the synthesis of chloroprene rubber from acetylene was achieved, thiokol was derived, and so forth. In future years this work was continued under the auspices of the Institute of Organic Chemistry (such as the working out of methods deriving synthetic rubber from nonconsumable raw materials). Of special interest are the collaborative works by Zelinskii directed at clarifying the chemical nature of India-rubber, the aim of which was to shed light on the question of the genesis of rubber in natural conditions.

Zelinskii’s published investigations with a practical application are closely tied to works of a predominantly theoretical character. “The boundary between living and non-living matter and their organic interaction” (1981, p.43) is one of the leitmotifs in the scientific work of this scientist during the entire course of his life. This is the source of his interest in problems associated with the origins of petroleum, in questions of fermentative catalysis, and his study of sapropels, proteins, and amino acids.

Zelinskii first encountered the study of the influence of living matter on the formation of nonliving forms after he took part in a scientific expedition, undertaken in 1981 on the initiative of the academician A. O. Kovalevsky, to study the Black Sea. Its primary aim was to establish the reason for the formation of hydrogen-sulfide in deep waters (the absence of life in the sea at great depths was considered to be connected to this). On the basis of the analysis of the gathered specimens in the Black Sea silt, Zelinskii proposed a new theory—which ran counter to the theory of professor Nikolai I. Andrusov—positing a bacterial origin of hydrogen-sulfide. As a result, it seems only logical that he would subsequently turn his attention to the study of sapropels, the basic materials for the formation of which in water reservoirs are microflora and microfauna, which exist in a symbiotic relationship with one another and, in the course of the biochemical process, transform into a sediment saturated with microorganisms. Ultimately this led to study of fermenting catalysis in protein bodies, since it is precisely the latter which play a decisive role in all natural processes of an organism.

The multifaceted nature of Zelinskii’s investigations has earned this scientist deserved recognition. Zelinskii’s achievements were highly valued both by the scientific community and by the state. He was accepted as a member to the French Chemistry Society and elected honorary member of the London Chemistry Society. In 1924 the Russian Chemistry and Physics Society awarded him the important A. M. Butlerov Prize. In 1926 he was awarded the title of honored scientist. He was a winner of the State Prize of the USSR three times (1942, 1946, and 1948), and he was named Hero of Socialist Labor (1945). He was awarded the Lenin Order four times (l940, 1945, 1946, and 1951), and the Red Banner of Labor twice (1941 and 1943).

Zelinskii was married three times. His first wife, Raisa Ivanovna (née Drokova, b. 1850) died in 1908 after a difficult, long illness. His son, Alexandr is from this marriage. In 1909 he married Evgeniia Pavlovna Kuz’mina-Karavaeva (b. 1881). From this marriage he had a daughter, Raisa (married to A. F. Plate). His wife died after a brief illness in 1934. Zelinskii was married for the third time to Nina Evgenievna Bok (née Zhukovskaia), with whom he had two sons, Andrei and Nikolay.


The Moscow branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences Archive (Fund 629) contains the following materials relating to the legacy of Zelinskii (1888–1942): his participation in various organizations and institutions (1902–1939); patents and certificates of authorship (from the 1920s and 1930s); and correspondence (1911–1939). Archival material can also be found in the collections of the N. D. Zelinskii Memorial Office and Library in Moscow.


Akademija Nauk SSSR. Zelinskii, Andrei. Akademik N. D. Zelinskii [The academician N. D. Zelinskii]. Moscow: Znanie, 1981.

Andrusev, M. M., and A. M. Taber. N. D. Zelinskii: Kniga dlia uchashchikhsia[N. D. Zelinskii: A book for students]. Moscow: Prosveshchenie, 1984.

Bogatskii, Aleksei V., Georgii V. Lazur’evskii, and A. Nirka Evgenii. N. D. Zelinskii (1861–1953): Stranitsy zhizni i tvorchestva[N. D. Zelinskii (1861–1953): Pages from his life and writing]. Kishinev: Shtiintsa, 1976.

Institut Organicheskoi Khimii imeni N. D. Zelinskogo (1934–1984) [The N. D. Zelinskii Institute of Organic Chemistry]. Moscow: Nauka, 1983.

Nikogosian, Nikolai B. “Vstrechi s Zelinskim” [Encounters with Zelinskii]. Khimiia i zhizn’[Chemistry and life] 2 (1986): 91–93.

Sterligov, Oleg D. “K 125-letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia akademika N. D. Zelinskogo” [In Honor of the 125th anniversary of the academician N. D. Zelinskii’s birth]. Vestnik AN SSSR[Bulletin of the Academy of Sciences, USSR] 10 (1986): 129–132.

Solov’ev, Iurii I., and Oleg D. Sterligov. “Nauka sblizhaet liudei naibolee prochno: Iz arkhiva akademika N. D. Zelinskogo” [Science brings people together most closely: From the archive of N. D. Zelinskii]. Vestnik RAN [Bulletin of the Russian Academy of Sciences] 8 (1992): 111–128.

Solov’ev, Iurii I., ed. Khimiki o sebe[Chemists about themselves]. Moscow: Vladmo, Graff-Press, 2001. See pp. 96–98.

Lunin, Valerii V., ed. Khimicheskii fakul’tet MGU. Put’ v tri chetverti veka[The chemistry department at MGU: Its three-quarter-century path]. Moscow: Terra-Kalender, 2005. See pp. 17–20, 159–161, and passim.

Elena Zaitseva