Jöns Jacob Berzelius (20 August 1779 – 7 August 1848) was a Swedish chemist who led a remarkable life that laid the very foundations of how we study chemistry today. Along with Robert Boyle, John Dalton and Antoine Lavoisier, Berzelius is considered to be a founder of modern chemistry.
Born in Östergötland Sweden, Berzelius enrolled at Uppsala University where he became a doctor at the age of 23. Berzelius was provided a laboratory and an assistant between 1808 an 1836. In this time, he was appointed Professor of chemistry and pharmacy at the medical college in Stockholm which later became the world renowned Karolinska Institute. During this time, he was also elected as a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and was credited with revitalising the academy and ushering in a second golden era.
Portrait of Berzelius.
What did Berzelius discover?
One of the most notable achievements Berzelius made in chemistry was through the experiments he conducted when preparing a textbook for his students: Lärboki Kemien, vol. 1, 1808. The experiments he carried out established that elements in inorganic substances are bound together in definite proportions by weight. This became the “Law of constant proportions”.
His various investigations also led to the discovery of several new elements including: Cerium, Selenium and Thorium. The students in his laboratory went on to discover lithium, vanadium among other rare metals. Not only did Berzelius discover new elements, he determined the atomic weights of nearly all the known elements of his day.
With so many elements to work with, Berzelius was motivated to create a logical, standardized system of symbols — H for Hydrogen, O for oxygen etc. which is the basis for the periodic table today. Not content with the tools of his time, Berzelius went on to create new instruments to further his scientific knowledge, The most famous of which is the Berzelius beaker,
Additionally, the word “protein” is attributed to being first used by Berzelius thanks to the investigative efforts of Sir Harold Hartley. In his address to the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences on “The place of Berzelius in the History of Chemistry”, Hartley claimed authorship of the word “Protein” belonged to Berzelius. Hartley proved this by sharing passages from a letter sent from Berzelius to a Dutch chemist named Gerdays Johannes Mulder. Mulder went on to be the first scientist to publish a paper with the term “protein” included.
Jöns Jacob Berzelius was a scientist in the truest sense, a man who asked questions about the world around him and worked hard to answer them. Whether you are an inorganic chemist or work in protein biology, we all have something to thank Jöns Jacob Berzelius for.