Ask someone to name a bunch of famous Scientists. Assuming they don't opt for TV-figures like Brian Cox or Bill Nye, they'll probably pick Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking or (if they're a maverick) Nikola Tesla. There's nothing wrong with those titans of course, but it's interesting that they're all physicists.
If you ask someone to narrow their list to famous biologists, they'll probably go with Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming or potentially Watson & Crick. Once again, nothing wrong with these luminaries (apart from Watson who's a total jerk) and it's great we can name biologists who shaped our understanding of the world. But what happens if you ask someone to name a famous chemist? There's a few obvious fictional ones like Henry Jekyll or Beaker from the muppets, but how many real-life chemists can we actually name? Unfortunately, this is where the gears of memory jam and it's something I want to change.
Of the three main Scientific disciplines, chemistry is the one we can actually do stuff with. You can't tell a quark how to oscillate or a strain of bacteria how to evolve, but chemicals are things we can influence. We can use chemistry to build the world we want to live in, and I think we need to bump and brag the chemists who put us on the right path.
I got all my sisters and me
The three Science textbooks we use at my school have pictures of great Scientists on their covers. Darwin for biology, Hawking for physics and, for some bizarre reason, Marie Curie for chemistry. Curie was the only person to win Nobel prizes in both chemistry and physics so she is definitely someone to champion...but especially for chemistry? Her Nobel prize was for discovering the elements radium and polonium; obviously impressive, but no more so than the other 116 on the table. If we hail Curie as one of the most important chemists of all time we'd have to justify why radium and polonium are more important discoveries than the other 116. Truthfully they are not.
Really, it's her work in physics which revolutionised Science and while her chemistry was outstanding (far better than mine) it wasn't a game-changer for chemistry theory. Marie Curie was one of the world's greatest physicists...even her chemistry Nobel was awarded largely because of physics experiments she did...and she would absolutely belong on that list. But there are much bigger and grander chemical discoveries made than discovering two elements which aren't used for much.
I sometimes worry people include Marie Curie because they feel obligated to include a woman in the chemical pantheon, but that's insulting to her legacy and reducing her to "token female Science person". Her achievements in physics are some of the most important in history and she needs to be remembered for that, not as a half-hearted nod to feminism.
The problem unfortunately is that without Curie, my list of great chemists becomes ten male names and that's a problem. It has overtones of the physicist Alessandro Strumia who recently said in a conference that physics was a subject "built by men". Yikes.
It is true most of the names in early Science history are male, but that's because women were not allowed to do Science!!! Most Universities in Europe refused women admission and even when they were permitted, they were often bullied out of them. Curie herself had to study in secret as a member of "The Floating University" (not as exciting as it sounds) because patriarchal attitudes were so engrained, the very notion of a woman being good at physics was abhorrent to University administrators. That's the reason the names are male...it's because men were being total jackasses to the women. So please remember, the names on my list are all dudes because of historical sexism and not a lack of female talent.
The trend is gradually starting to change I'm happy to say, and a list of great chemists fifty years from now will hopefully be more balanced. But I can't fudge historical facts and I'm not going to include less-impactful female people on my list because that would be patronising to them, not to mention insulting to the male Scientists I'd be overlooking. I'm hoping we can still appreciate the brilliance of these ten great chemists of history and not hold their testicles against them.
On that note, here's the video I did about why we need to be able to name more female Scientists: Great female scientists
Oh and here's the blog I wrote on why a lack of female representation in Science needs to change: Feminism in Science
1. Hennig Brandt
Chemistry began in Germany during the 1670s when the alchemist Hennig Brandt decided to boil his own urine to see if he could extract any gold. He couldn't. What he did discover was a waxy white powder which glows in the dark, stinks of garlic and bursts into flame with no provocation. He had discovered phosphorus, the first element isolated in recorded history. While some elements had been known since ancient times (e.g. gold and iron) Brandt's discovery showed that the substances around us aren't pure - they are made up of other stuff mixed together somehow.
Brandt began ordering barrels of excess urine from the German army (spending his wife's money) to extract their phosphorus and carried out numerous experiments to see what it could do. Although a complete fluke, Brandt's discovery marked a turning point for laboratory practice. Rather than chucking a bunch of stuff together in a pot and hoping for the best, Brandt stumbled across a whole layer of chemical reality hidden below the surface. Alchemy became chemistry and four hundred years later we have 118 known elemental substances with which the Universe does her cooking.
2. Antoine Lavoisier
About a hundred years after Brandt was boiling his own pee, Chemistry began to explode in Europe, both figuratively and literally. Antoine Lavoisier was the guy who began collecting the information, verifying it in his lab (with the help of his wife Marie-Anne) and categorising the growing list of elements. He started grouping chemicals together by property and thus gave us our first periodic table - the Chemist's infographic.
Lavoisier's table wasn't complete of course and he considered things like heat and light to be pure substances, but he gave us the notion that chemical reactions obeyed predictable laws. In the same way physics had strict principles governing the whole show (discovered by Newton), Lavoisier probed chemistry for its own patterns and showed that reactions didn't happen at random. Although later Scientists like Dobereiner, Newlands, Mendeleev and Seaborg crafted the periodic table into its current shape, Lavoisier was the one who suggested the idea in the first place.
3. Jons Berzelius
Berzelius is the reason a lot of people hated chemistry in school. Originally a physician in the late 1700s, Berzelius decided that since physics and mathematics had terminology and notation, chemistry ought to have them too, so he set about formalising the language of this burgeoning field. He's the one who came up with chemical equations and the symbol system we use today with all those little numbers and arrows. What an absolute legend.
Berzelius also discovered silicon, thorium, cerium and selenium and was the first person to start weighing masses of molecules to figure out how many atoms they contained. That's pretty good going seeing as the existence of atoms wasn't proven until 150 years later. Berzelius discovered that when a chemical reaction occurs, all the atoms still exist at the end, even if they've escaped as something like a gas. This had confused previous chemists because it looked as though stuff could pop into and out of existence at will, but Berzelius showed that matter was a conserved quantity; a principle I take great pleasure in tormenting my students with today.
4. Humphry Davy
Humphry Davy began his life as a poet, but when he turned to Science he became the most accomplished chemist in Britain, sometimes referred to as the British Berzelius. He holds the record for the most naturally-occuring element discoveries (six) did a lot of work on acid-base properties, invented the first anaesthetic and came up with the electroplating method we still use to protect ships. However, Davy's biggest contribution to chemistry was cataloguing reactivity itself.
Because most elements are bonded to others and don't occur in their native state, a lot of chemistry involves mixing the right chemicals together and causing atoms to shift partner. Chemical reactions are all about breaking one set of particles and rearranging them to a new one. Davy essentially figured out which chemical combinations would react and which did nothing. His studying of reactivity cost him his eyesight when a plate of nitrogen trichloride exploded in his face, but studying unreactivity led him to observe the properties of glowing metal in inert gases and thus Davy invented the very first light bulb...in your face Edison.
5. Svante Aarhenius
Arrhenius was the founder of the Nobel prize committe (he won it in 1903 of course) and invented what we now call 'physical chemistry'. It's the result of physics and chemistry getting amorous and concerns itself with things like rate of reaction (the equation for which is his), electrochemistry (for which he won the Nobel prize) equilibrium (a concept he largely invented) acid-base reactions (he was the first person to figure out what they were) and forgetting to wear your lab specs (as shown in the above photograph). His greatest contribution to Science, and the world however, was establishing the link between chemistry and the environment.
In the 1890s everyone assumed the natural world was simply too big for humans to have any effect on. Darwin had shown us to be a tiny a twig on the tree of life, but Arrhenius put us right back in the centre of things when he began taking measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and comparing it to historic levels from ice cores. Arrhenius learned that chemical reactions humans were carrying out affected chemical reactions in the air around us and was the first person to ring an alarm bell on the most pressing and crucial chemistry challenge we face today: climate change. The entire ecosystem of the Earth is a giant chemical system and we play a significant role. How we choose to wield that power is up to us, and Arrhenius showed us we have that power in the first place.
6. Fritz Haber
I don't really like the term "evil scientist" because a person's moral code is often a product of their environment. Fritz Haber essentially invented chemical-weaponry for Germany during WWI by using chlorine gas to suffocate and acidify British troops in trenches. But from Haber's perspective he was being a patriot, helping his government defeat the invading British who were getting involved in a conflict they had no stake in. Haber's desire to help his country's war-effort doesn't necessarily make him evil. However, going on holiday to watch the massacre itself from a protected balcony probably does.
The greatest thing Haber did for chemistry was industrialise it. Prior to him, reactions were carried out in clunky batch processes by small teams prpducing tiny amounts. Haber figured out a way to manufacture ammonia (a key ingredient in fertilisers and therefore essential to food production) on a factory scale at a permanent output. The Haber process allows us to set our starting materials and keep them in constant reaction for as long as we need, rather than relying on a dozen lab-coat wearing glassware experts measuring out precise doses. Prior to his input, the main way to get fertiliser was from bat excrement and I think the Haber process is a better way of maintaining our food-economy than constantly feeding bats laxatives.
7. Gilbert Lewis
Everyone knew by the mid-twentieth century that atoms were made of protons and neutrons in their nucleus with electrons orbiting in shells. But nobody could figure out how they stuck together. Berzelius had been banging on about atoms combining for centuries, but how exactly did they do it? Lewis was the man who proposed "the chemical bond".
A chemical bond is a link between atoms where electrons are shared in a combined region of space, equally attracted halfway between both nuclei. Originally Lewis began drawing his atoms as cube-shapes with electrons on corners, but a lot of people misunderstood and thought he was claiming atoms were square. He wasn't, he was just coming up with a way to keep track of electrons and their shells. We still use his "dot" method today, except we draw everything in circles fortunately. Lewis was sadly overlooked for the Nobel prize 40 times, which seems ridiculous to me because chemistry theory without the idea of bonding would be like mathematics without the equals sign.
8. Linus Pauling
One afternoon, while suffering from a cold and reading sci-fi novels in bed, Linus Pauling decided to start cutting strips of paper out of his newspaper and began drawing atoms on them before folding them at what he calculated to be their correct bond angles. By doing so, he solved an important protein structure that had been baffling biologists for decades. This sounds like a kooky way to do chemistry but he wasn't practising origami. Pauling was basing his paper-angles and shapes on quantum theory, the new branch of physics taking the science world by storm. By applying quantum mechanics to chemical bonding and chemical bonding to proetin shape, Pauling created a bridge between physics, chemistry and biology, showing all three Sciences were part of the same dance. He won the Nobel for chemistry, although it just as easily could have been awarded for the other two.
He was arguably the greatest multi-disciplinary scientist of the twentieth century, writing books and papers in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biochemistry and also did a lot of work persuading governments to de-escalate their nuclear armament programs (for which he won his second Nobel prize). Toward the end of his life, he went a bit off the deep end and claimed you could cure cancer by taking "mega-doses" of orange juice, but in his prime he was the chemist's Einstein. Oh, and he came up with the helix structure for DNA before Watson and Crick. So there.
9. Robert Burns Woodward
Chemistry is split into four main disciplines. Physical chemistry is about the mathematics of how chemicals move, flow and react (Arrhenius). Quantum chemistry is getting down to the nitty gritty of how electrons behave within a molecule (Pauling) and then the study of elements and compounds is split into two branches: organic which is the study of carbon-based molecules, and inorgnaic...the study of everything else. Inorganic chemistry was arguably invented by Davy and Berzelius, but the indisputed king of carbon was R.B. Woodward.
Because most of the important molecules in the world are carbon-based, organic chemistry is mostly about analysing their structure - a process called spectroscopy - and then creating them ourselves - a process called synthesis. Woodward invented both techniques. Woodward was an architect of molecular dimensions, building such complex structures as quinine, cholesterol, chlorophyll and vitamin B12 from scratch. Most of the medicines in your bathroom cabinet are only possible thanks to Woodward and his synthetic techniques. A-level chemists in the UK are required to learn a huge number of synthetic maps charting how we turn one carbon molecule into another. Woodward is the man who drew the map.
10. Leo Baekeland
If Baekeland's life were to have a title it would be How to get rich by doing simple organic chemistry. Woodward was the master of complicated molecules, but Baekeland was the man who invented the most ubiquitous carbon-based substance in modern civilization. Historically we classify human eras as the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, but the present day will almost certainly be known as the Plastic Age.
Although a few chemists had accidentally discovered the process of sticking simple carbon-molecules together in chains and tangling them up - notably Eduard Simon and Alexander Parkes - Baekeland was the person who mastered it and gave the world its plastic. Prior to him, most hard substances were either metal, rock, wood or shellac (a substance made from sticky beetle-egg-glue - ewwwww). Baekeland envisioned a material we could make on demand, customise to fit a purpose, alter to be hard, soft, flexible, brittle or tough, and would not corrode over time. The plastics industry, which gives us everything from stationary to furniture to breast implants made him an untold fortune. Bravo Leo. And thanks for all the ocean-garbage!
If you're curious about the story of chemistry and how we developed the whole thing check out my book: Elemental - How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Nearly) Everything
Stanley Testube (not real name): bbc
Susan Frontczak (real name): businessinsider
I love science, let me tell you why.