Historical Entries


Svante Arrhenius John Dalton Henry G. W. Moseley
Jons Jacob Berzelius Sir Humphrey Davy Linus Pauling
Neils Bohr Michael Faraday Ernest Rutherford
Robert Wilhelm Bunsen Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev August Kekulé von Stradonitz
Marie Curie Robert A. Millikan J.J. Thomson

Svante Arrhenius

Svante Arrhenius was a child prodigy, received one of the first Nobel Prizes, and was director of the Nobel Institute for Physical Chemistry. Even so, the first half of his professional career was a struggle against the establishment that might have caused other scientists to give up. His is an example of perseverance in the face of adversity and belief in one’s self and one’s work. Students can relate to these themes, as well as to the fact that despite being enormously bright, Arrhenius barely passed his doctoral examination, couldn’t get a job, and was forced to go outside of his country to pursue his research. His was truly a labor of love.

Arrhenius showed an aptitude for math at an early age. He had taught himself to read by age 3 and had graduated high school early. He entered university with his doctoral research all planned out. Although he was a promising student, his unorthodox ideas were not well received. His groundbreaking research on the dissociation of molecules to form positive and negative “ions” (Michael Faraday’s term) was too much of a leap for the faculty at the University of Uppsala. Although he would later develop this theory to explain the concentration of various acids and bases, and his “electrolytic dissociation theory” would become the cornerstone of the emerging field of physical chemistry, Arrhenius almost flunked out. His dissertation was awarded a fourth-class pass, basically a grade of D.

Luckily, Arrhenius was resourceful and not too proud to take a teaching job at a technical high school; any sort of professorship was out of the question for someone who had gotten a fourth class. But Arrhenius also sent his work to many other scientists. Eventually, it found its way to others who understood his work and whose own research agreed with his findings. He was able to travel and develop his theory by interacting with these scientists all over the globe. He traveled for many years, gaining respect and a reputation as a brilliant scientist. Nine years after presenting his radical idea, he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Arrhenius had wide-ranging interests. Another of his notable scientific contributions involved the concept of “activation energy” and the effect of temperature on reaction rates. His career can be used to present students with an example of a scientist who was far from one-dimensional. He was interested in the causes behind the northern lights and the theory of “panspermy” (the idea of interstellar “germs” seeding the stars with life), although he considered these hobbies. Another side interest turned out to be prescient about one of today’s deepest scientific concerns: Arrhenius was the first to describe and predict what the effects of carbon dioxide were for the temperature of the earth. Today we call this “the greenhouse effect.”

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A chronological biography of Arrhenius with a personal perspective. Site maintained by UTA.

A brief biography maintained by NASA that highlights Arrhenius' musings about the relationship between surface temperature of the Earth and the gases in Earth's atmosphere.

A short and clear biography, including images. Also contains links to an original paper and a laboratory experiment recreating the dissertation research of Arrhenius. Maintained by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Containing a very in-depth outline of Arrhenius’ professional career. Maintained as part of the Nobel e-Museum by the Nobel Foundation.

Includes some brief biographical information and a short treatment of the controversy over Bronsted-Lowery’s versus Arrhenius’s acid-base theory. The Arrhenius theory is explained, and its shortcomings explicated. From the Chem Team Web site, maintained by John Park of Diamond Bar High School, Calif.

A “calculator” that evaluates the effect of temperature on reaction rates using “The Arrhenius Equation.” Site maintained by the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Chemistry.


Jons Jacob Berzelius

Jons Jacob Berzelius was a systematic, organized thinker and a great technician who raised the bar in the chemistry laboratory. He is also an example of a scientist who overcame great adversity in his childhood. Although he was born into a well-educated family, both his parents died when he was very young, and he worked his way through school. When he reached medical school, he did poorly in most of courses except for physics. He is, thus, a touchstone for students who might think that being born into the right situation assures one of success, or that scientists never fail.

Because of his parents’ deaths when he was young, Berzelius was dependent on scholarships and his own work to provide for his education. He entered medical school, did badly enough to have his scholarship withdrawn, but returned to eventually earn his degree. It was during his time as a medical student that he gained an interest in electrochemical processes; his thesis was about the effect of electric shock therapy on sick people.

Berzelius was a great organizer and experimenter in the laboratory. Over his career, he determined the atomic weights of over 2,000 compounds. Chemistry students can be shown that, just as there is room for dreamers in chemistry (see Kekulé), there is also room for those with the skills of organization and pattern making. Berzelius was this kind of thinker and excelled at learning languages when he was young. Because he was dealing with so many chemical compounds, it seemed natural that he would need a concise and clear way of making notes about them. Indeed, it was Berzelius who proposed the system of chemical symbols we still use today. Berzelius also made other practical contributions to chemistry as an experimentalist, including the use of the desiccator, filter paper, and rubber tubing, and he coined many familiar scientific terms, such as “catalyst,” “isomerism,” and “protein.”

Berzelius was also a dedicated teacher. In preparing a definitive textbook, he performed experiments that confirmed that inorganic substances are bound together in definite proportions by weight. This is also known as “the law of constant proportions,” and it is a cornerstone of modern chemistry. This law, the discovery of several elements, and a language to talk about chemistry, are the main things for which Berzelius is remembered today.

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A short overview of Berzelius. Includes images of the scientist and a link to his original paper on chemical proportions. Site maintained by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

A biographical retrospective of Berzelius as told by a contemporary upon his death.

An entry from the ChemSoc timeline, marking the acceptance date of Berzelius’s language of chemical symbols. Site Maintained by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Introduces Berzelius as the inventor of the “first real filter paper.” This filter paper is still made by the same company that manufactured it for Berzelius. Site maintained by Munktell.


Niels Bohr


"Indeed, it need hardly be stressed how fortunate in every respect it would be if, at the same time as the world will know of the formidable destructive power which has come into human hands, it could be told that the great scientific and technical advance has been helpful in creating a solid foundation for a future peaceful cooperation between nations."

From 1950 open letter to The United Nations. Available online from The Niels Bohr Archive. See http://www.nbi.dk/nba/files/gym/leth.htm for complete text.

Niels Bohr was a scientist inextricably tied to his social and political times. As such, his story is a vivid illustration that science does not take place in a vacuum. He was a Jewish person during the time of the Holocaust and World War II, and a brilliant scientist who was all too aware of the consequences of his work in helping the Allies develop the atomic bomb. These concerns were expressed throughout his later career, including in an open letter to The United Nations, from which the opening excerpt is taken.

Bohr was born in Copenhagen to a mother whose family was well-known in the field of education and a father who was a physiology professor. Bohr was a brilliant student and a great soccer player. (His brother, Harald, was actually on Denmark’s Olympic soccer team and won a silver medal.) As one of Bohr’s colleagues remembered, “Even Bohr, who concentrated more intensely and had more staying power than any of us, looked for relaxation in crossword puzzles, in sports, and in facetious discussions.”

“The Bohr Atomic Model” is perhaps the scientific contribution for which Bohr is best known. His studies included atomic structure, radiation, the nature of the periodic table, and quantum theory. As a relatively young man, he became chair of the Institute of Theoretical Physics at The University of Copenhagen (a department that had been created for Bohr, and funded by Carlsberg Brewery).

With the outbreak of World War II, life in German-occupied Denmark became increasingly difficult for Bohr (whose wife and mother also had Jewish heritage). Bohr eventually escaped Denmark to Sweden in a fishing boat, and settled in the United States, where he aided the ongoing research into the atomic bomb. For the rest of his life, he pursued humanitarian causes, even donating his gold Nobel Prize medal to the Finnish war effort.

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A concise biographical sketch of Bohr. Site maintained as part of the PBS series, “A Science Odyssey.”

A comprehensive page with several photographs and short personal anecdotes about Bohr. Site maintained by The American Institute of Physics.

A detailed account of Bohr’s professional life, particularly his scientific research and accomplishments. Site maintained as part of the Nobel e-Museum by the Nobel Foundation.

An extensive biography of Bohr and his work. Contains quotations and many references, as well as 10 pictures of Bohr. Site maintained by the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

The official site of the Niels Bohr Archive in Copenhagen. Contains personal correspondence, scientific notes and letters, and photographs. Most materials not available over the Internet, but can be found through a searchable database. Database of photographs produces printable images (http://www.nbi.dk/cgi-bin/search-nba). Site is maintained by Felicity Pors.

A brief, but fairly detailed, explanation of the Bohr model of the atom. Site maintained by the Department of Physics, University of Toronto.

Targeted toward a younger audience. Introduces spectral lines, then moves into an explanation of Bohr’s insight in very simple terms, and includes interactive animations. Site maintained by the NSF-funded Physics 2000 Project, an online resource that uses applets and cartoon characters to “advance physics explanations.”


Robert Wilhelm Bunsen

Almost all students of chemistry know the name “Bunsen.” Very few know the story behind the name, or the reasons that we associate this scientist with the gas-flame Bunsen burner today. Using this piece of common laboratory equipment to help illustrate Bunsen’s motivation and life story is not only a powerful way to engage students, but it also leaves them with a physical place-marker for the story. Every time they use or see a Bunsen burner, they can be reminded of Robert Bunsen, why he needed a very hot flame with little light, how he lost the use of his eye in a lab explosion, or more generally, that the tools they use everyday have their own histories.

Bunsen was raised in an academic environment and loved geology. This interest stayed with him throughout his career as a researcher and teacher and even into his retirement. Like other great scientists, Bunsen did not see hard lines of separation between scientific disciplines and followed his ideas wherever they took him, whether it meant going to Iceland and measuring the temperature of gases coming out of a geyser or working with arsenic compounds that smelled so bad that even a whiff would turn your tongue black.

Although he is best known today for the burner that bears his name, Bunsen was a sought-after teacher and pioneer in many fields: organic chemistry, arsenic compounds, the measurement and analysis of gases, the development of galvanic batteries (there was actually a “Bunsen battery”), and, especially, elemental spectroscopy.

Bunsen and Gustav Kirchoff developed the first chemical spectrometer, and it was this pursuit that necessitated the creation of the Bunsen burner. There is some question about the origin of the basic design of the burner—it appears that Michael Faraday actually invented a very similar burner before Bunsen—but it was certainly Bunsen who refined and popularized it. In his partnership with Kirchoff, Bunsen had the insight to pre-mix the gas with air to produce the intense, low-light flame they needed so that the flame would not interfere with the color of the combusting material. It was Kirchoff who had the insight to use prisms to make the spectra lines visible. Together they created a new way to look at the world and its elements—they discovered the elements cesium and rubidium using the spectrometer—and opened the door to analyzing the composition of the stars and sun based on their optical spectra.


A concise summary of Bunsen’s scientific contributions presented for the chemistry teacher. Includes three “lessons” to be learned from Bunsen’s life and work. Site maintained by “SHiPS,” a resource site for teachers using sociology, history and philosophy of science in science teaching.

A great overview of Bunsen, Kirchoff, and their work together. This site includes images of the scientists, their spectroscope, and a link to their original paper. Maintained by The Chemical Heritage Foundation.

This site contains a link to photos of the building in Heidelberg where Bunsen and Kirchoff performed their experiments. Included are photos of a statue of Bunsen, their spectroscope, and Bunsen’s voltaic cell. Site maintained by Allegheny College.

Targeted toward a younger audience. Contains easy-to-understand description of spectroscopy, with interactive animations. Site maintained by the NSF-funded Physics 2000 Project; an online resource that uses applets and cartoon characters to “advance physics explanations.”


Marie Sklodowska Curie


"Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the one whom fame has not corrupted."

Albert Einstein, from Madame Curie by Irene Curie, as quoted in http://www.physics.purdue.edu/wip/herstory/curie.html

Marie Sklodowska Curie stands as a pioneer in the science of radioactivity (a term she coined) as well as in the role of women in science. She had a huge impact not only on the conceptual world of science by opening up an entirely new field of research and fundamental understanding but also on its sociology. She was the first person to win two Nobel prizes, the first woman to receive a doctorate in France, the mother of two daughters (one of whom also won a Nobel prize), and a tireless humanitarian. Suffering through times of extreme financial and personal hardship, Curie is an amazing example of a person with perseverance, breaking boundaries imposed by others. Students can see in her story the fact that science is not reserved for one type of person based on sex, financial resources, or nationality.

Curie (known to her family as “Manya”) was the youngest of five children born to poor school teachers in the Polish capital of Warsaw. She was an exceptionally bright student, finishing first in her high school class despite the severe limitations put on her learning by the occupying government of czarist Russia. Curie also knew tragedy early in her life, as she lost one of her sisters and then her mother (to tuberculosis) by the time she was 10 years old

To pursue her education beyond high school, Marie not only had to contend with being a woman in a time when intellectual opportunities were almost solely open to men, but she also was Polish at a time when Russia was trying to limit the national and intellectual development of the country. She, therefore, had to attend the clandestine “floating university” that was assembled by students wishing to learn and share their expertise. Curie made a pact with one of her sisters and took work as a tutor and governess for eight years, paying her sister’s way through medical school. When it was finally Curie’s turn to be supported, she left Poland for the prestigious Sorbonne in France.

Continuing to lead a life of bare essentials, Curie was often in ill health, but she quickly caught up to the formally-taught students in her class. It was at the Sorbonne that she met Pierre Curie, the man who would become her husband and scientific partner. Pierre, a talented researcher in his own right and professor of physics, quickly became fascinated by Curie’s choice for her doctoral work: the newly discovered phenomenon that certain materials, such as uranium, could expose photographic film. This began the pair’s life-long quest for an understanding of the elements that emitted what Curie called “radiation.”

Over the course of her career, Curie became the first person to win two Nobel prizes, the first in physics, shared with Pierre and Henri Becquerel for research into the phenomenon of spontaneous radiation, and the second in chemistry, for her work in radioactivity, including the discovery of two new elements: radium and polonium (named after her native Poland). But her accomplishments were balanced by hard times; when Pierre died in a traffic accident, she took his place as professor of general physics in the Faculty of Sciences, a first for a woman. Curie’s final post was as the director of the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, which she had struggled to establish for most of her life.

Always putting the good of the many ahead of her own, Curie worked under difficult conditions for most of her career (the bulk of her ground-breaking work was done in a shack where the temperature in winter dipped below zero). She and Pierre also never applied for a patent for the process by which radium could be isolated. This opened the process to researchers and industries alike, and would have made them a hefty sum had they not thought it more important for the knowledge to be shared freely. Curie also championed the use of radium and radioactivity in health therapies. During WWII, she turned to the fledgling use of X-rays in medicine and almost single-handedly formed a corps of mobile X-ray units (in automobiles) to help the wounded on the battlefield. Curie learned how to drive a car and undertook intensive lessons in human anatomy and auto mechanics so that she could teach every aspect of the operation. These mobile X-ray units were known as petites Curies (little Curies).

Never comfortable with fame, Curie nonetheless used it to help finance her research and causes. In her later years, she served on the League of Nations’ Commission on Intellectual Cooperation. Despite health problems from years of exposure to enormous amounts of radiation (including blindness, loss of weight, burned fingers), several scandals, and a constant struggle to finance her research, she was said to have a quiet dignity and was enormously respected as a scientist. She died of leukemia caused by radiation, as did her Nobel-prize winning daughter, Irene. Today her remains are interred at the Pantheon in Paris—the highest honor in France. As was often the case during her life, she was the first woman ever to be granted this great honor.

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An extensive chronological look at Marie Curie in words and excellent photographs. Much attention is spent on the personal as well as scientific sides of her life. Not all pages are accessible through the main index; one should navigate using the links at the bottom of each section for the entire story. Site maintained by the American Institute of Physics.

A smattering of vital information about Curie. Includes an extensive list of links, images of her many awards and honors, quotes from and about her, and much more. Site maintained by Zbigniew Zwolinski, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland.

A concise biographical sketch of Curie including images. Site maintained by The Chemical Heritage Foundation.

A detailed account of Curie’s professional life, particularly her scientific research and accomplishments. Includes links to other resources, including a well-referenced article recounting her life and accomplishments. Site maintained as part of the Nobel e-Museum by the Nobel Foundation.

An online “exhibitlet” about Curie. Includes images of interesting lab apparatus and a general biography. Site maintained by The Science Museum, London.

The site of Marie Curie Cancer Care, “the UK’s most comprehensive cancer charity.” Includes the Marie Curie Research Institute. Site Maintained by Marie Curie Cancer Care.


John Dalton

John Dalton is an example of someone who used science to examine questions that affected his life and then used this inquiry as a springboard for other explorations. The story of his work is, thus, a good way to bring scientific motivation closer to students’ lives. He was also a devoutly spiritual scientist—a practicing Quaker—which may seem a bit oxymoronic to many students today, because they may see science and religion as being at odds with each other much of the time.

When Dalton was 26, he discovered he was color-blind. (Today, this condition is still sometimes called “Daltonism.”) He tried to understand his color blindness by asking and answering questions using science. The first paper he presented to fellow scientists was about what he thought caused his condition. Although Dalton was wrong about the causes of color blindness, throughout his life he was right about a lot of other things!

Dalton was also very interested in weather. He carried his weather observing equipment everywhere and made written observations of the weather every day from the age of 21 to his death (that’s 200,000 observations over more than 57 years). His interest in understanding the weather and the way gases behave led him to the work for which he is most remembered today: the calculation of atomic weights and the laws by which atoms combine, his law of partial pressures, and his atomic theory.

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Contains a useful biographical sketch of Dalton, an illustration from one of Dalton’s early papers, and links to additional Web resources about Dalton. Site maintained by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

An in-depth biography of Dalton that highlights his contribution to chemical symbology. Site is maintained by CUNY Brooklyn.

A brief description of Dalton’s work as it relates to mass spectrometry. Site maintained by the Scripps Center for Mass Spectrometry.


Sir Humphry Davy

Sir Humphry Davy is a unique figure in the history of chemistry. Not only was he an original researcher and extraordinary scientist, but he proved to be a powerful popularizer of science as well. He was truly theatrical and can serve as a reminder to students that chemists (and other scientists) are not necessarily laboratory-bound or one-dimensional. Rather, they can have many talents and express their creativity in many ways.

Like Pauling, Davy is another example of a prominent scientist (in this case, one who attained knighthood) who had humble beginnings. Davy was born to a poor woodcarver. He had to leave home at an early age to help support his family and became apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary. Despite his tough times, Davy was very motivated and taught himself theology, philosophy, poetics, seven languages, and several sciences, including chemistry. But the eager Davy was forced to move on from his apprenticeship when several of his experiments exploded. This is a good reminder to students that even great scientists fail, and a lot of the great insight in science comes from trial and error.

Davy had the last laugh, however, as his next job involved studying the effects that various gases—most notably, nitrous oxide or "laughing gas"—have on people. Davy’s experiments led to the gas being used as an anesthetic in dentistry almost 50 years later; but, at the time, all that his detailed experiments prompted were laughing-gas parties, where socialites delighted in the effects of the gas. His work did, however, earn him the reputation as a serious scientist and started him down the road to fame.

Davy was hired as a lecturer at the Royal Institution in London, where part of his job was to present lectures to upper- and middle-class people interested in the science of the day. He was a hit, inspiring lay people and future scientists alike. One of his future students, Michael Faraday, was a devoted fan of his lecture series, as was science writer Jane Marcet.

Davy is best known for his pioneering efforts in electrochemistry, especially the recognition that the bonds that tie chemicals together are electric in nature, and that electricity can be used to break these compounds into their constituent parts (a process called “electrolysis”). Using this process, Davy discovered new elements, including potassium and sodium, and challenged many of the orthodoxies established by Antoine Lavoisier. To many, however, Davy is best remembered as the inventor of a new type of miner’s lamp that allowed a flame to burn in the presence of methane.


A concise biographical sketch, including images of Davy, as well as a cartoon of one of his lectures, in which he was often depicted as a dandy or “fop.” Links include the Virtual Museum of Anesthesiology. Site maintained by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Contains a very brief biographical sketch. Also contains interesting footnotes regarding the invention, controversy, and desperate need for the “Davy lamp.” Site maintained by Spartacus Educational.

Humphry Davy School Web site, where the birthplace of Davy—Penzance, England—shows its pride in its native son. Site maintained by Humphry Davy School.

Explores the eerie connection between Davy and the book Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. NOTE: Site requires a subscription fee. Maintained by the Journal of Chemical Education.

Includes a very short biography, as well as an “extra credit” portion filled with odd facts about him. Also good links to more biographical resources. Site maintained by Who².


Michael Faraday

Students can see many things in the story of Michael Faraday. They can see the positive consequences of perseverance and the pursuit of one’s dreams despite humble beginnings; they can see the unity of religion and science in a deeply devout scientist; they can see the pettiness that some must overcome to achieve greatness; and they can see the role that chance, or luck, plays in the path that each of us follows. Faraday’s story is rich with opportunities to engage students, both with the details of his pursuit of science and the details of his own personal journey.

Faraday was the son of a poor blacksmith who was a member of a Christian sect called the Sandemanians. He had little, if any, formal education, and worked as an errand boy for a book binder when he was 13 or 14, eventually becoming an apprentice. To Faraday, it was like working in a library, and he eagerly pored over all the books of interest (sometimes copying the text and pictures) that came to the shop to be bound, particularly those having to do with chemistry and the other sciences.

It was a customer of the bookbinder’s that gave Faraday four free tickets to lectures being given by Sir Humphry Davy. This was an event that changed the course of Faraday’s life, and one can easily wonder what might have happened (or not happened) if those tickets had been given to another worker, or Faraday had been on his lunch break and missed the customer. Whatever the case, Faraday was enraptured by Davy’s lectures and took copious notes. In an act of desperation, audacity, or naiveté, Faraday recopied the notes, had them bound, and sent them to Davy with the request for a job at The Royal Institution of London. Davy was impressed with Faraday’s ability, but had no positions open. In another stroke of luck for Faraday, shortly thereafter, Davy’s assistant was dismissed for fighting, and Faraday was hired in his place. Had Davy’s assistant held his temper, Faraday might have continued as a frustrated bookbinder’s apprentice.

Faraday’s new job began almost immediately with an 18-month tour of Europe accompanying Davy, his wife, and her maid. Faraday had to agree to act as Mrs. Davy’s valet at times, but he took this non-scientific task in stride as he met some of the great thinkers of his time. This was his formal education, a true “road scholar.” Upon returning to London, Faraday became Davy’s assistant. The men had what could only be described as a fruitful professional relationship, and Faraday gained some notoriety for his discoveries and accomplishments. This led to some jealousy on Davy’s part, and it is conjectured that he assigned his assistant less-promising tasks to keep him out of the limelight. What is not conjecture is that Davy opposed Faraday’s election as a Fellow of the Royal Institution. He was overruled, and Faraday never held a grudge, being as humble and kind and uncaring of honors as Davy appeared impressed by them. In a mere 12 years after first being hired, Faraday replaced Davy as director of the Royal Institution.

In his career, Faraday’s scientific accomplishments were many and great. He was the foremost pioneer of the relationship between electricity and magnetism, discovering electro-magnetic rotation (the first electric motor), electromagnetic induction (the generator), the two laws of electrochemistry, and the magneto-optical effect (the “Faraday effect”); coined the still-used terms “ion,” “cathode,” and “electrode” (with William Whewell); and furthered the notion of “fields” of force. He also contributed practical inventions—collaborating on Davy’s miner’s lamp and inventing a new, more efficient type of chimney. Faraday was often a trusted advisor to organizations and the government about scientific matters. He was also the preeminent scientific lecturer of his time, starting both a Friday lecture series and a special Christmas series of lectures for children that continues to this day.

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An extensive biography with links and additional information about Faraday’s correspondence, research, and images from the Royal Institution’s Faraday Museum. Site maintained by The Royal Institution of Great Britain.

A biographical sketch of Faraday, including images. Includes link to a complete biographical work available online. Maintained by The Chemical Heritage Foundation.

An insightful, short biography that focuses on the personal aspects of Faraday’s life. Site maintained by the BBC.

An online exhibition looking at the life and work of Michael Faraday with particular emphasis on his work as a lecturer, his travels in Europe, his correspondence with artists and his interest in photography.

A general biography with quotations and interesting cross-links and tidbits. Site maintained by School of Mathematics and Statistics University of St Andrews, Scotland.

A very short biography, but one that contains excerpts from Faraday’s correspondences. Maintained by Spartacus Educational.

An indepth biographical profile with a focus on Faraday's personal perspective. Site maintained by Ether Wave Propaganda.


Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev


"I have achieved an inner freedom. There is nothing in this world that I fear to say. No one nor anything can silence me. This is a good feeling. This is the feeling of a man. I want you to have this feeling too; it is my moral responsibility to help you achieve this inner freedom."

From Mendeleev, The Story of A Great Chemist by D.Q. Posin

Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev was truly a man of the people. Unlike many scientists, he was a very public figure and used his prominence to try to help the common people of Russia. His is, thus, an example of someone who was not satisfied with just being good, but rather, he was someone who used his success for social as well as scientific ends (unlike basketball star Charles Barkley, Mendeleev did consider himself a role model). His story is also one of the most tragic and triumphant examples of overcoming adversity in this history of science Web resource. He can be used to inspire individuals, as well as to instill a sense of science’s larger role in human affairs.

Mendeleev was the youngest of 14 children. He was remarkably bright from an early age and benefited from the scientific mentoring of a dissident uncle and the local chemists and glass blowers. He got to know the latter very well, as his father went blind and his mother got a job to support the family at the glass factory. When he was about to finish high school, Mendeleev’s father died and the glass factory burned down. With most of her other children already grown, Mendeleev’s mother took the remaining family members and the money she had saved for her youngest son’s education and moved first to Moscow and then to St. Petersburg, looking for a school that would take her son. Tragedy struck once again, for as soon as Mendeleev had enrolled, both his mother and sister died of tuberculosis.

Alone with his studies, Mendeleev worked hard. Despite his own bout with illness, he finished first in his class and dedicated his life to science and using his research to help the farmers, workers, and everyday people that were the heart of Russia. He was a devoted teacher, and when he decided to write a textbook, it proved to be the catalyst for an idea he had been formulating for years: how to organize the (then) known 63 elements. Here is a good example to students that inspiration for great scientific ideas does not always come overnight, but that they can have very practical, perhaps even mundane, beginnings.

Mendeleev synthesized the work of many other scientists into a new, original form: the periodic table. By organizing the known elements into rows according to atomic weight, a pattern emerged in which the columns contained elements with similar chemical characteristics (this is the “periodicity” in the table). But he also realized that there were “blanks,” or elements that had not yet been discovered, in his table. Knowing the chemical properties assigned to these empty niches, Mendeleev was able to predict the characteristics of the yet-to-be-discovered elements. Although people scoffed at his audacity, when the first of his predicted elements was discovered five years later (aluminum), Mendeleev’s stature as a scientist was ensured.

Ever outspoken and a champion of the people, Mendeleev was forced to resign his post at the University of St. Petersburg when he delivered a student petition to the administration. But Mendeleev was so popular with the people that he was given another government post, working for the department of weights and measures.

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The Mendeleev Puzzle, a curriculum module based around the periodic table. Students can use “Mendeleev cards” to reproduce the logic he employed when deducing the organization of the periodic table. Site maintained by SHiPS.

An in-class activity that attempts to reproduce Mendeleev ‘s methodology. Students apply the “Periodic Law.” Maintained by Science Teacher’s Resource Center & Lapeer Technology Coalition.

Contains all things Mendeleev: images, remembrances, publications. Contains some notable dead links, and some of the biographical information is sketchy. Site maintained by Dr. Eugene V. Babaev, Moscow State University, Russia.

A short dual biography of Mendeleev and Julius Meyer. Includes the question of priority over the initial “discovery” of the periodic table, as well as images, including an early version of Mendeleev’s periodic table. Maintained by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

A historical perspective on Mendeleev's role in the creation of the periodic table of the elements. Site maintained by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

A perceptive description of Mendeleev’s contribution. Easy to read and understand. From the AIP Marie Curie site. Maintained by The American Institute of Physics.

The site for “Mendeleev Communications,” a journal published by the Russian Academy of Sciences. Contains a link to a concise biography that emphasizes Mendeleev’s lasting impact on science. Site maintained by Mendeleev Communications.

A site maintained by the D. Mendeleev University of Chemical Technology of Russia, one of the many institutions, prizes, and monuments that bear his name.

One of the more remarkable periodic tables available on the Internet. Be sure to look at the “landscapes” option. Site Maintained by The Royal Society of Chemistry.

A very versatile and informative interactive periodic table. Includes images, sound, and detailed entries for each element. Maintained by Mark Winter.


Robert A. Millikan

Robert A. Millikan is an example of a scientist with very human qualities—a reminder that scientists not only have the same personal and social concerns as other people, but that for better or for worse, the same desires may drive their scientific and personal lives. Millikan won the Nobel prize and was the preeminent scientist in the United States for a time. Yet, after his death, some of his most famous findings were presented as examples of intellectual dishonesty, and his attitudes towards women and minorities were brought into question. During his life, Millikan lectured and wrote books about reconciling the thorny issue of science and religion. To students, Millikan can be seen as an example of the fact that many of the issues students deal with every day in their own lives— how to treat people, the consequences of their actions, how to reconcile their beliefs—are the same issues that scientists must tackle.

Millikan had a rural childhood and excelled at athletics. Indeed, he briefly considered a career in physical education. After helping teach a course in physics during his sophomore year in college, however, he never looked back. He proved to be a brilliant student of physics and an engaging teacher. During the first half of his career, he wrote and edited textbooks, simplifying and refining the way that physics was taught, but had little success as a researcher. Feeling left behind in an era of groundbreaking scientific research into atomic structure, he decided to try to measure the change of the electron.

Although there is controversy surrounding the role of his graduate students and the way in which he reported his results, no one can deny the elegance of the falling “oil-drop method” that he used to reach his conclusions. Following his fame and further research successes (verifying Einstein’s photoelectric equation, determining Planck’s constant), he was asked to found the physics department of a new university: the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Millikan never stopped caring for and trying to educate the general public, and in his later years, he turned his research skills towards the heavens, naming “cosmic rays,” but drawing incorrect inferences about their origin.

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A concise and thorough biography of Millikan’s professional career. Maintained as part of the Nobel e-Museum by the Nobel Foundation.

A well-written biographical sketch of Millikan accompanying a reprint of his landmark 1913 paper (excerpt). Site maintained by the American Institute of Physics.

This article contains extensive biographical information and addresses the case for and against Millikan’s reputation as a scientist who “cooked” his results. Site maintained by Caltech.

A long biography outlining Millikan's contributions to the physical sciences and his role in building the California Institute of Technology. Hosted by the National Academy of Sciences.

A simulation of the oil-drop experiment. Quicktime needed. Maintained by Encyclopedia Britannica.


Henry G. W. Moseley

Henry G. W. Moseley was one of Ernest Rutherford’s most promising students and quite likely would have been awarded the Nobel prize for his work in determining the atomic numbers of the elements had it not been for a tragic event. At the age of 27, having volunteered to serve in the British Army in WWI, Moseley was killed by a sniper. His is a somber example to students that the path a person takes can be cut tragically short. It is also a concrete reminder that scientists do not work in a vacuum, but are as affected by the world around them as other people—sometimes with fatal consequences.

Moseley had only a 40-month research career. But in that time, he accomplished more than some do in a lifetime. He not only designed and constructed his original laboratory apparatus, but he also produced remarkable results. He realized that bombarding an element with cathode rays produced X-rays whose wavelengths depended on the atomic structure of the element. He was, thus, able to diagnose the atomic structure of each of the known elements, and then he did a calculation to arrive at their “atomic number.” This new piece of information, added to Mendeleev’s periodic table (which still had gray areas because he had organized the elements based on their atomic weight), resulted in the periodic table we see today, organized by atomic number.

Moseley was a very serious young man. When WWI started, he volunteered for active duty and became an officer in the signal corps. At the time of his death, he was the most promising physicist of his time. Even a newspaper in Germany (the enemy of Britain in the war) printed the headline “Ein schwerer Verlust” (“A heavy loss—for science”) when he died in Gallipoli (Lienhard, J.H. (n.d.). No. 717 H.G.J. Moseley. Retrieved September 29, 2003 from University of Houston, The Engines of Our Ingenuity Web site: http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi717.htm). To students, this can illustrate the idea that there are some things—like music, art, and science—that can cross even the lines drawn during war.

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A concise biographical sketch and explanation of Moseley’s research. Includes a link to The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, UK, and a Moseley postcard they sell. Site maintained by the Physics Department of the University of Oxford.

A revealing look at Moseley and his relationship with Ernest Rutherford, produced by KUHF-FM. Includes streaming audio of the text with music. Site maintained by Engines of our Ingenuity and The University of Houston’s College of Engineering.

A short biographical entry with a photo of Moseley and a link to his original paper. Site maintained by Allan Campbell.

A history of Moseley’s discovery of the concept of atomic number, with a section about Moseley’s research. Puts his work in a larger context. From the Chem Team Web site, maintained by John Park of Diamond Bar High School, Calif.

The actual computations carried out by Moseley as well as a description of the origin of the “Moseley plot.” Site maintained by C. R. Nave.


Linus Pauling

Linus Pauling was a scientist who pursued many different ideas and interests. Although he is considered one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 20th century, he is also a terrific reminder to students that a scientist doesn’t need to do just one thing. Many times, the hardest part of science is knowing what questions to ask, or getting an inspired idea. Pauling had many, and they led him to great discoveries in many different fields. A student once asked him, “How can I have great ideas?” to which he replied, “The important thing is to have many ideas.” This notion, that science is a creative process of having and pursuing ideas rather than the dull profession of people carrying out prescribed experiments in a lab, is one of the most fundamental messages for students learning about chemistry and the nature of science.

Pauling was born in Oregon to a family that barely made ends meet. After his father died when he was 9, Pauling felt torn between his need to help support his family and his desire to go to college. He managed to do both, working as a laborer in a shipyard, chopping wood, doing dishes, and all manner of other jobs to work his way through high school and college while sending money home to his mother and two younger sisters.

Pauling entered chemistry at a time when it was moving from a science based on describing phenomena to a science built on theories for these phenomena, a change that he helped facilitate. He also entered a fairly young university, California Institute of Technology (Caltech) as it was becoming a more prominent player in the field of chemical research. It is fair to conclude that Pauling was a large part of this move to prominence. He started as an assistant professor of chemistry at Caltech, and had a professional relationship with the institution that lasted more 50 years.

The nature of the chemical bond, molecular structure, diseases (especially sickle cell anemia), and the idea of molecular “resonance” are just some of the topics that Pauling pursued. He also championed the role of vitamin C in health; the megadoses that many people take today to fight colds are largely seen as a result of Pauling’s work.

He was also an untiring advocate for peace. At one point, he picketed the White House to object to the testing of nuclear bombs, and then went inside to attend a dinner in his honor with the President of the United States—all in one day! His work as both a peace activist and chemist resulted in Pauling’s being the only person to have ever been awarded two unshared Nobel prizes—one for chemistry, the other for peace.

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A short biography of Pauling, including images (with his wife, Ava, and wearing his trademark black beret). Includes links to other useful resources. Site maintained by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

A detailed summary of Pauling’s professional life, particularly his scientific research and accomplishments. Site maintained as part of the Nobel e-Museum by the Nobel Foundation.

A longer, much more detailed account of Pauling’s life, written by a professor of chemistry, Stephen Mason, who puts Pauling’s many scientific contributions into both a technical and historical perspective. Site maintained by Oregon State University, Special Collections.

The research notebooks of Linus Pauling. Contains samples of what he wrote in his own handwriting and shows just how detailed the records of a scientist can be. “Highlights” link takes the user to pages of personal and scientific interest. Site maintained by Oregon State University, Special Collections.

An extensive biography with pictures. Site maintained by the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. The Institute has as its mission “to determine the function and role of micronutrients, vitamins, and phytochemicals in promoting optimum health and preventing and treating disease; to determine the role of oxidative and nitrative stress and antioxidants in human health and disease; and to advance knowledge in areas that were of interest to Linus Pauling through research and educational activities.”

An online exhibit about Linus Pauling that was one of the Exploratorium’s “Top Ten.” Contains links to other Pauling materials, including resources prepared for his centenary. Site maintained by Oregon State University, Special Collections.

Includes a video biography as well as videos of his early life, an interview, and some lecture footage.


Ernest Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford was one of the world’s most innovative thinkers. His story begins humbly as one of 12 siblings growing up on a New Zealand farm. (His credo was “We don’t have the money, so we have to think.”) He grew up to be a famous, socially conscious researcher and a “people person” who was very supportive of his students, many of whom went on to win Nobel prizes and be great scientists themselves. In a time when women were on the fringes in many professions, Rutherford campaigned for their rights at Cambridge University and worked supportively with one of the first women researchers in the field: Harriet Brooks.

None of this might have happened, however, if Rutherford had been successful in his first attempt at a career—to follow in his mother’s footsteps and become a school teacher. (He was turned down three times!) This is just one example of the fortuitous and convoluted route that Rutherford followed to his career as a scientist. Along the way, there were also several scholarships he received because the first-place winners were unable to accept them. Rutherford had come in second each time, but without these means of getting from rural New Zealand to college, he might never have been able to start his research career.

Rutherford is famous for making things simple—designing equipment to simply test hypotheses and trimming claims to the bare essentials. He made three discoveries over his lifetime for which he is best known: He did the fundamental research that led to an understanding of the chemistry of radioactive material, he disproved J. J. Thomson’s “Plum Pudding” model by discovering the solid nucleus and orbiting electrons of the atom, and he “split” the atom.

Rutherford was particularly good at working with others; he not only shared information, but he also shared the credit for many of his discoveries with other researchers. Might this have been a product of growing up with 11 brothers and sisters? Whatever the case, he also nurtured many students who went on to win Nobel prizes themselves, including James Chadwick, Niels Bohr, Hans Geiger, and Robert Oppenheimer.

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A general biography of Rutherford, including images of Rutherford and postage stamps honoring him. Links to other resources, including a more extensive biography at the Nobel e-Museum and more extensive descriptions of his experiments. Maintained by The Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Contains a fairly extensive biography, including aspects of Rutherford’s scientific career and links about New Zealand. Contains quotes and Web references. Maintained by NZEDGE, a private company.

Describes the holdings of the Rutherford Museum of McGill University, where Rutherford worked from 1889–1907. Also displays the contents of each cabinet in clear photographs. Contains Rutherford’s research apparatus, some written documents, as well as a biography section. Site maintained by the McGill Physics Department. Site maintained by The Rutherford Museum of McGill University.

An interactive applet of Rutherford’s famous gold-foil experiment. Site maintained by the graphics and Web programming team of Michael W. Davidson and Florida State University, in collaboration with Optical Microscopy at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.


[Friedrich] August Kekulé von Stradonitz

[Friedrich] August Kekulé von Stradonitz is a remarkable figure in the history of chemistry, specifically organic chemistry. To students, he can help bridge the gap between their notions of artistic or subconscious “inspiration” and scientific discovery. Twice during his lifetime Kekulé had dreams that led him to major discoveries! Everyone dreams, and it is illustrative to show students that not all scientific breakthroughs, or good ideas, come through experimentation in the laboratory and that there is a place in science for dreamers.

Like Thomson and Rutherford, Kekulé is another example of a ground-breaking chemist who originally planned to pursue another career. As a child, he had hobbies like hiking and collecting butterflies, and he was apparently a good juggler and mimic and showed a talent for drawing. Indeed, he had such a talent that his family decided that he should become an architect. Kekulé entered school for architecture, and had it not been for the life-changing impression the famous chemistry professor Liebig had on him, he might have had dreams about buildings instead of molecules.

Kekulé discovered the tetravalent nature of carbon, but he did not make this breakthrough by experimentation alone. He had a dream! As he described in a speech given at the Deutsche Chemische Gesellshaft,

"I fell into a reverie, and lo, the atoms were gamboling before my eyes! Whenever, hitherto, these diminutive beings had appeared to me, they had always been in motion; but up to that time, I had never been able to discern the nature of their motion. Now, however, I saw how, frequently, two smaller atoms united to form a pair; how a larger one embraced the two smaller ones; how still larger ones kept hold of three or even four of the smaller; whilst the whole kept whirling in a giddy dance. I saw how the larger ones formed a chain, dragging the smaller ones after them, but only at the ends of the chain. . . The cry of the conductor: “Clapham Road,” awakened me from my dreaming; but I spent part of the night in putting on paper at least sketches of these dream forms. This was the origin of the Structural Theory."

Quotation from Serendipity, Accidental Discoveries in Science, by R.M. Roberts

Later, he had a dream that helped him discover the structure of benzene rings, solving a problem that had been confounding chemists:

"During my stay in Ghent, I lived in elegant bachelor quarters in the main thoroughfare. My study, however, faced a narrow side-alley and no daylight penetrated it....I was sitting writing on my textbook, but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation; long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis."

From Serendipity, Accidental Discoveries in Science, by R.M. Roberts

Other famous chemists have credited dreams as part of their inspiration, for example, Dmitri Mendeleev and Niels Bohr. Said an excited Kekulé to his colleagues, “Let us learn to dream!”

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Contains a general biography of Kekulé, including images of his early drawings. Also examines the controversy surrounding Archibald Scott Couper’s tragic career; he made a similar discovery to Kekulé, but he did it a matter of weeks later. Maintained by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

An extensive biography maintained by the Encycolpaedia Britanica.

Includes a list of scientists inspired by dreams. Site maintained by PaperVeins Museum of Art.

This site contains a list of infuluential people through history influenced by their dreams. Site maintained by luciddreamlessons.com.

This site contains brief stories about influential people influenced by their dreams. Site maintained by brilliantdreams.com.

Site displays an artist's rendition of what Kekulé saw in his dream. Site maintained by Kenneth Snelson.


Joseph John (“J.J.”) Thomson

Joseph John Thomson (“J.J.” as he was always called) discovered the electron. His story is an excellent example of perseverance in the pursuit of science and the quirky nature of pathways of discovery. Thomson is reported to have been clumsy with his hands while, at the same time, being tremendously talented at figuring out problems and designing equipment to help him in his experiments. This is a vivid illustration that scientists are not great at everything; they might exhibit some real shortcomings if you met them.

Thomson’s family wanted him to be an engineer. Indeed, he was on the waiting list to be an apprentice, when his father died. Because of this devastating turn of events and the lack of money to fund his apprenticeship, he enrolled in college as a student of mathematics. Probing the question “What would have happened if Thomson had become an engineer instead of a chemist or physicist?” allows students to explore the themes of inevitability and contingency/chance.

Thomson proposed many bold hypotheses about the nature of the atom. Although he did discover the electron, his theories weren’t always right, nor were they always believed. Indeed, he is quoted in many sources as saying, “At first there were very few who believed in the existence of these bodies smaller than atoms. I was even told long afterwards by a distinguished physicist who had been present at my lecture at the Royal Institution that he thought I had been ‘pulling their legs.’”

One of Thomson’s most famous proposals was a theory of atomic structure called the “Plum Pudding Model.” What is plum pudding? Exploring the reasons behind this name choice (and the recipe) allows students to understand the power of analogy, as well as the cultural dependence of many scientific ideas. If Thomson proposed this model today, what might he have called it?

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A general biography of Thomson, including images. Links to other resources, including an article linking the discovery of the electron to the artwork of Marcel Duchamp. Site maintained by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

An in-depth account of Thomson’s life with excellent photos. Includes information about the centenary of the discovery of the electron, celebrated in 1997. Site maintained by Cavendish Laboratory (Physics Department of the University of Cambridge, where Thomson was a professor from 1884-1919).

An informative site that goes into great detail about Thomson and his experiments. Includes many photos and images, including explanations of Thomson’s actual laboratory tools, as well as an audio clip from Thomson himself. Site maintained by the American Institute of Physics.

Includes an account of the theoretical origins of Thomson’s Plum Pudding Model and the discovery of the electron. Site maintained by The Chem Team.

A great explanation of the history and substance of “plum pudding.” Site maintained by Linda Stradley and What’s Cooking America.



The Web resources collected on these pages are not maintained by Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC). None of the Web resources are affiliated with or sponsored by EDC. EDC is merely providing the Web resources for informational purposes. EDC cannot guarantee that the Web resources are active or that the content is accurate. As with all Web-based information, links change from time to time. To our knowledge, all links were functional as of October 2013. Please notify Kerry Ouellet at kouellet@edc.org if you experience any problems.


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