Russian & Soviet Science and Technology

Chemistry

Chemistry has a strong tradition in Russia, dating back to the first significant Russian scientist, Mikhail Lomonosov, continuing through A. M. Butlerov and D. I. Mendeleev in the nineteenth century, and persisting into the Soviet period, when N.N. Semenov won the Nobel Prize for his work on the kinetics of chemical reactions. This history, like that of much of Russian science, is poorly covered in the English-language Literature.

A well-known biography of Lomonosov is B.N. Menshutkin’s Russia’s Lomonosov, Chemist, Courtier, Physicist, Poet (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1952). Unfortunately, Menshutkin’s biography contains serious errors, such as the contention that Lomonosov did not believe in phlogiston. A Soviet biography of Lomonosov has recently been translated into English: Galina E. Pavlova and Aleksandr S. Fedorov, Mikhail Vasil’evich Lomonosov: His Life arul Work translated by Arthur Aksenov (Moscow: Mir Publishers, 1984). Another source is a collection edited by Henry M. Leicester, Mikhail Vasil’evich Lomonosov and the Corpuscular Theory (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1970). But despite the numerous publicaions about Lomonosov, especially in Russian, a critical evaluation of his place in the history of science has not yet been written.

Chemistry was established as a profession in Russia by the mid-nineteenth century. This development is analyzed in a valuable dissertation written in 1988 in the department at Columbia University by Nathan Marc Brooks entitled “The Formation of a Community of Chemists in 1700-1870.” Chemistry was particularly strong at Kazan University, where A. M. Butlerov worked. Relevant sources on chemistry at Kazan and on Butlerov, one of the founders of structural chemistry, are S. N. Vinogradov, “Chemistry at Kazan University in the Nineteenth Century: A Case History of Intellectual Lineage,” Isis, 1965, 56:168-173; and Henry M. Leicester, ÒAlexander Mlkhailovich Butlerov,” Journal of Chemical Education, 1940, 17 (May): 208-209. On the controversial contributions of August Kekulé and Butlerov to the origins of structural chemistry, a useful article is Alan J. RockeÕs ÒKekulé Butlerov and the Historiography of the Theory of Chemical Structure,” The British Joumal for the History of Science, 1981, 14(46):27-55.

No adequate biography of the great chemist Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev exists in any language, not even Russian. Indeed, many of the existing treatments of Mendeleev are filled with errors, such as the often-repeated assertion that the reason he had a substitute read the most important paper of his career, the one on the “table of the elements,” to the Russian Chemical Society was that he was sick; he ” actually away from St. Petersburg on a consulting trip. On the positive side, the Soviet historian and philosopher B. M. Kedrov wrote an excellent description of the discovery of the table of the elements entitled The Day of One Great Discovery (Moscow: Nauka, 1958). Unfortunately, this book has not been translated into English, but it is summarized in Kedrov’s article on Mendeleev in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Another useful source is Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, “Mendeleev’s Periodic System of Chemical Elements,” British Journal of the History of Science, 1986, 19:3-17. For an emphasis on the effect that writing a textbook had on Mendeleev at the time he was developing the periodic table see Loren R. Graham, “Textbook Writing and Scientific Creativity: The Case of Mendeleev,” National Forum Winter 1983, pp. 22-23. Two Ph.D. dissertations on Mendeleev emphasizing his social and political roles are Beverly Almgren, “Mendeleev: The Third Service, 1834-1882” (Brown Univ., 1968); and Francis Stackenwalt, “The Thought and Work of Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev on the Industrialization of Russia, 1867-1907” (Univ. Illinois, 1976).

One reason that no adequate biography of Mendeleev has yet been written is that he was as active in politics and social issues as he was in chemistry. The future biographer faces a mountain of archival material, most of it collected in the Mendeleev Museum in Leningrad. Under Count Sergei Witte, minister of finance in the last decade of the nineteenth century, Mendeleev served as head of the Bureau of Weights and Measures, a position that was tantamount to being science adviser to the tsar’s government. Mendeleev was never satisfied with government policies on economic development and was involved in many disputes. Part of this story can be found in Alexander Vucinich, “Mendeleev’s Views on Science and Society,” Isis 1967, 58:242-251.

A third chemist of this generation is better known as a composer of symphonies and opera, but Aleksandr Borodin made his living as a professor of chemistry at the St. Petersburg Academy of Medicine and Surgery. He roomed with Mendeleev when both were doing postgraduate study in Europe, and he and Butlerov wrote a biography of the organic chemist Nikolai Nikolaevich Zinin (who trained under Justus Liebig). A helpful, but far from complete biography is Nikolai I. Figurovskii and Yurii I. Solov’ev’s Aleksandr Porfir’evich Borodin: A Chemist’s Biography, translated by Charlene Steinberg and George Kauffman (New York: Springer Verlag, 1988). [See also George Sarton, “Borodin, 1833-87,” Osiris 1939, 7:224-251.–Eds.] A memoir by an important Soviet chemist who emigrated to the United States, V.N. Ipatieff is Life of a Chemist (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1946).

Soviet historians have written a great deal on the history of chemistry, but as with other topics in this teaching guide, I will not attempt to describe the Russian- language literature. For an overview of the evolution of Soviet interpretations of the history of chemistry readers can, however, turn to Yakov M. Rabkin, “Trends and Forces in the Soviet History of Chemistry,” Isis, 1976, 67:257-273.

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