Life Sketch from The Other Eminent Men of Wilford WoodruffCopyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy. Father of Organic Chemistry 1808-1873 Prussian-born Justus von Liebig was the greatest chemist of the nineteenth century. He presented a body of knowledge to the world that revolutionised not only chemistry but other laboratory sciences as well. His experimental method revolutionised science. Utilizing his procedures, and experiment could be tested, repeated, measured, and analyzed with consistent results. Although others had worked with elements of this method, Liebig brought them all together in a workable approach to scientific problems. Scientific exploration before Liebig’s time was known as the philosophical approach. This approach consisted of thinking about a scientific question in order to come up with a solution. The underlying attitude of this approach was that those who worked with their hands were inferior to those who worked with their minds. One early philosophical professor, for example, observed that “the influence of the moon upon the rain is clear, for as soon as the moon in visible the thunderstorm ceases.”
“Perfect agriculture is the true foundation of all trade and industry–it is the coundation of the riches of the states.”
– Baron Justus von LiebigBefore Liebig established his chemical courses in 1824, there were no universities in which students could practice in a laboratory and do their own scientific research and discovery. Students were permitted only to attend university lectures, perhaps watch the professor perform experiments at the front the class. Liebig’s first goal as a professor was to change this classroom format. He wanted to establish a laboratory large enough to accomodate his students. Because of this plan, the teachers at the University of Gieseen objected strongly to Liebig’s appointment, which had been made without their consent. But Liebig persisted, and finally, by the sheer force of his determination, a small room in an unused police station was turned over to him to use as a laboratory. The university, however, saw no reason to bear the necessary cost. Liebig was forced to borrow money in order to set up a laboratory, a debt which took him ten long years to pay off. Like Louis Agassiz, Liebig felt that the discovery method was essential to the learning proces. Students soon began coming from all over the world to learn in Liebig’s laboratory. One of Liebig’s American pupils, S. W. Johnson, later a professor of agricultural chemistry at Yale, gave this account of Liebig’s teachings:
It was in that spirit that Baron Liebig instructed the students who gathered in his laboratory from all quarters of the globe to learn the art of making ‘’discoveries’’ in science…. It was not the novelty or the glory of discovery, but the genuineness of discovery that was regarded as of first importance…. He encouraged, but he criticized. He asked questions, suggested doubts, raised objections.Like Agassiz, Liebig soon had more students than he could accommodate. Students came from America, England, France, and other countries. Many of Liebig’s students and his students’ students later became famous in their own right. In a lineal academic descent at least thirty-four of Liebig’s academic descendants have received Nobel Prizes. Had Nobel Prizes been given before 1901, there may have been even more of Liebig’s students who received the award. It has often been noted that although students often differed from their teachers and did not follow exactly in their master’s footsteps, “they had learned the ‘’principles’’ involved in exploring new regions, so they themselves became pioneers. Like Michael Faraday, in England Liebig felt no need to confine his knowledge to a university setting. He shared his knowledge with others through public lectures and demonstrations. All were welcome, an attitude that was particularly pleasing to women, who usually were not able to attend universities. During one of these lectures, which was attended by the royal family, Liebig burned carbon disulphide in nitric oxide and accidently caused an explosion. When the smoke settled he noticed blood trickling from the Royal couple’s faces. He was mortified, but grateful that they had received only some minor scratches.
Early LifeA key to Liebig’s unique approach to teaching and science can be found in his early childhood. Justus Liebig was born 12 May in 1803 at Darmstadt, Germany. His parents, Georg and Marie Moserin Karoline, were devoted to their son and loved learning. His father sold paint and varnishes, which he manufactured according to the elements of the day. The elder Liebig would often send his young son to the Royal library to check out different books on chemistry. Justus Liebig read any books he could find in the chemistry section. In spite of his love of learning, Liebig didn’t do well in school. He struggled with the lecture system that was prominent in that day. He had difficulty learning by lecture, but he had a photographic memory and remembered easily things he saw and read. Liebig’s school performance was so miserable that the headmaster made an example of his poor abilities and told him the he was the plague of his teachers and sorrow of his parents. The headmaster ended his tirade against him by asking him what he thought would become of him. Liebig, mustering all the courage that he had and drawing on considerable knowledge from his readings and experiments with his father, answered simply that he would someday be a chemist. This comment sent the teacher and the other students into peels of raucous laughter. No one at that time even dreamed that chemistry would eventually exist as an entire subject by itself and that Liebig himself would play a prominent role in its future development. Because at the age of fifteen Liebig was still failing in school, his father removed him and placed him in a nearby town as an apprentice pharmacist. There he remained for about ten months and learned all the chemicals in the shop. One night when Liebig was attempting one of his own experiments in his attic room, his experiment went awry and blew out the bedroom windows. The druggist decided that it was safer for Liebig to be with his parents and sent him home. Liebig’s parents continued to place their confidence in their son. They sent Liebig out again, this time to work with a soapmakers. He was soon producing perfumed soap for his father’s paint shop. Through careful observation he learned much of the trade of the tanner, the smith, and the brass founder. He learned so much this way that he could have began an apprenticeship with any one with advanced knowledge. However, he did not want to work in a shop; he wanted to discover and to learn. Liebig convinced his father to let him enroll in the University of Bonn. Here, he worked hard to overcome the shortfalls of his studies from his elementary years. He soon found that it was virtually impossible to study chemistry in the university, and persuaded his father to let him go to Paris, where the great minds in science had accumulated in centers established during the progressive era of Napoleon. He desired in particular to study the experiments of Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac, well-known French chemist and physicist.
Meeting HumboldtAfter about a year of study, Liebig was given the honor of reading a paper on his analysis of certain explosive compounds. Afterwards an older gentleman came up to Liebig, complimented him on his presentation, and invited him to dinner the following Sunday. Liebig was so flustered by such attention that he failed to get the man’s name. On Sunday Liebig was the most unhappy young gentleman of Paris. He walked the streets of Paris in despair. The next day a friend asked, “What on earth did you mean by not coming to dine with von Humboldt yesterday? He invited Gay-Lussac and a number of other chemists to meet you.” Distraught, Liebig hurried off to Humboldt’s residence to apologize. When the great man heard Liebig’s pitiful story, he was amused and arranged a second dinner with Gay Lussac and Liebig. Gay-Lussac was struck with the quickness of Liebig’s mind and invited him to use his private laboratory. Here Liebig was able to fulfill his dreams of working in a laboratory, and he began his career as a pioneer in science. Modern sciences owes much to these early men of science like Humboldt and Gay-Lussac who opened the way for young scientists to flourish. They became mentors to many of the fathers of scientific disciplines. A year after Humboldt introduced Liebig to Gay-Lussac, he also secured or Liebig the post of assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Giessen, although no chair of chemistry ever existed. It was not long before Liebig became a full professor and, through sheer determination, established his laboratories. Liebig’s department at Giessen became a center for budding young chemists of the nineteenth century. When Abraham Lincoln created the United States Department of Agriculture in 1862, he appointed C.M. Wetherill, one of Liebig’s students, to head the department.
ChemistryWhile Liebig was at the university, he became the first to provide the courtroom with a scientific analysis of evidence in order to help solve criminal murder cases. It was a popular defense of the time to claim that the deceased had died of spontaneous combustion created by over-drinking. Liebig dispelled this popular defense with his analysis of the corpse in the courtroom. Liebig remained at Giessen for twenty-eight years, becoming the greatest chemist of the nineteenth century. He took the lead in four important areas: organic chemistry; chemistry has it related to agriculture; agriculture as it is related to physics; and pedagogy. He was an outstanding teacher, and his influence was not only felt through the university and local lectures but also through his prolific writings. His first letters, revealing insights about the practical relations of the sciences to the arts and to other departments, were written with great clearness. Liebig is perhaps best known for his work in agriculture. He showed that plants robbed the soil of its nutrients, which needed to be replaced with manure and other organic matter. He also noted, after examining plant ash, that certain elements were lacking even after fertilizers were added. In 1845, he began working on producing chemical ferticlizers suppliment natural organic fertilizers. He succeded but cautioned that chemical fertilizers should be considered only as a supplement to to organic fertilizers. In Liebig’s day, nine farms could feed themselves, and with their combined surplus, they could feed one city family. As a result of his work, by 1865, one farmer could feed twenty-seven people. Liebig accepted no credit for originality. He felt that the knowledge he worked with had existed for years. His contribution was to give that knowledge more light, so it could be seen better. He described the facts he worked with as a room full of furniture and other objects which have always been there, but which were not always visible or useful to those in the room. Many people who were familiar with certain objects totally missed others. Liebig felt that he had brought more light into the room, therefore more objects were seen and could be used.
CharacterLiebig was known not only for his excellent scholarship, but also for his generous disposition to his students and others. An incident that occurred when he was about fifty illustrates his character. He and his friends were on a walk through the mountains to another village, when they came upon an elderly soldier. The man was poverty stricken and enfeebled by disease. As Liebig’s company came near, the old man told his sad tale. Liebig, whose heart and purse were often readily open, gathered with his friends a little stock of money for the old soldier. They then passed on to the next village, where they stopped at an inn to dine and rest. When all had feasted they settled down for an afternoon nap. After half an hour his friends awoke to find Liebig gone. Upon inquiring of the landlords to his whereabouts, they discover that after they had gone to sleep, Liebig asked for directions to a pharmacy. When he was told that there was none in that village, but there was one in the next, Liebig began hiking to the next village. The inquiring friends immediately set out to find Liebig, who they presently saw near the knoll of a hill. Liebig explained to his friends that he had noticed that the old soldier had showed signs of a low grade fever, and he desired to obtain some quinine for him. Liebig’s compassion, however, did not always extend to other scientists, of whom he was often critical when they disagreed on theories. But he soon apologized if he was in the wrong. Liebig sometimes combined his attacks with humor. “Imagine yourself,” he would say, “in the year 1900, when we shall both have been decomposed again into carbonic acid, water and ammonia, and the lime of our bones belongs perhaps to the very dog who then dishonors out grave. Who then will care whether we lived at peace or strife?” Because of him millions now live on increased production of the soil. To better the world was Liebig’s hope. He said, “If I can impress the farmer with the principles of plant nutrition, soil fertility, and the causes of soil exhaustion, one of the tasks of my life will have been accomplished.” What Newton was to mathematics and astronomy, Liebig had been to organic chemistry. Said Theodor von Bishcoff:
I do not think I am mistaken … that there are not many among the younger [generation] … who know, or have even a distant notion how great–or, rather, I should say, how immense–the influence of Liebig’s researches, writings, and teachings has been. They care but little for him to whome science, and with science they themselves, are indebted for their present position.Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy. 2