Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Matthiessen, Augustus

MATTHIESSEN, AUGUSTUS (1831–1870), chemist and physicist, was born in London on 2 Jan. 1831. His father, who died while Matthiessen was quite young, was a merchant. A paralytic seizure during infancy produced a permanent and severe twitching of Matthiessen's right hand. Notwithstanding the taste for chemistry which he displayed as a boy, he was, upon leaving school, sent by his guardians to learn farming with a Dorset farmer, as being the only occupation suited to his condition. His inclination was then towards a business career, but becoming interested in agricultural chemistry, then in its earliest infancy in this country, he immediately, on coming of age, went to Giessen, where he studied under Will and Buff, and graduated Ph.D. From 1853 he spent nearly four years under the direction of Bunsen at Heidelberg, and by means of his electrolytic method isolated the metals calcium and strontium in the pure state for the first time. In Kirchhoff's laboratory he studied the electrical conductivity first of the new metals, and then of many others. His results were published in Poggendorff's ‘Annalen’ and the ‘Philosophical Magazine’ for 1857. He returned to London in 1857 with a thorough knowledge of the methods of physics and of inorganic chemistry, and studied organic chemistry with Hofmann at the Royal College of Chemistry. The work done under Hofmann's direction was not important, but it led the way to Matthiessen's considerable researches on the opium alkaloids of later years. Matthiessen soon fitted up a laboratory on his own account at No. 1 Torrington Place, where he began a series of investigations on the physical properties of pure metals and alloys which has become classical.

The preparation of copper of the greatest conducting power possible had become a question of great practical importance in connection with telegraphy. Matthiessen showed that the discrepancies of previous observations and the low conductivity of certain samples of the metal supposed to be pure were due to the presence of minute quantities of other elements. He embodied his results both in a report presented in 1860 to the government committee appointed to inquire into the subject, and in a conjoint paper with Holzmann, published in the ‘Philosophical Transactions.’ In 1861 he became a fellow, and afterwards a member of the council of the Royal Society. In 1862 he was elected to the lectureship on chemistry at St. Mary's Hospital, a post which he held till 1868. During 1862–5 he undertook important voluntary work for the British Association committee on electrical standards, and in the latter year constructed for them ten standards and several copies of these, made from various metals and alloys. In 1867 he summarised his work on the constitution of alloys in a lecture given before the Chemical Society (Chem. Soc. Journ. 1867, p. 201). Besides pointing out a remarkable difference in the behaviour of tin, lead, zinc, and cadmium in alloys from that of other metals, he made two general sug gestions of great importance: first, that small amounts of impurity in a metal do not by their direct action produce the remarkable changes in physical properties to which their presence corresponds, but that they cause the metal with which they are alloyed to assume an allotropic form; and secondly, that in most cases alloys must be considered as ‘solidified solutions.’ In 1868 Matthiessen was appointed lecturer on chemistry at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in conjunction with Professor Odling; on the latter's resignation in 1870 he became sole lecturer. In 1869 he was awarded a royal medal by the Royal Society ‘for his researches on the electric and other physical and chemical properties of metals and their alloys.’ Besides his other work he had a large private practice as a consulting chemist, and from January 1869 to June 1870 was one of the editors of the ‘Philosophical Magazine.’ In 1870 he was appointed examiner to the university of London. On 6 Oct. of the same year he committed suicide, his mind having given way under severe nervous strain. At the time of his death he was occupied with the experiments on the chemical nature of pure cast-iron, of the committee appointed to inquire into which he was a member, and also with experiments with a view to the construction of a standard pyrometer. The ‘Royal Society's Catalogue’ contains a list of thirty-eight papers published by Matthiessen alone, and of twenty-three published conjointly with Von Bose, Burnside, Carey Foster, Hockin, Holzmann, Russell, Szcepanowski, Vogt, and Wright. The most important appeared in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ and ‘Proceedings’ of the Royal Society, the ‘British Association Reports,’ ‘Journal of the Chemical Society,’ and ‘Philosophical Magazine,’ from which many were reprinted in foreign periodicals. Matthiessen's researches show remarkable acuteness, experimental skill, and conscientiousness, together with a distinct power of generalisation. That with his physical defect he should have accomplished so much delicate and exact work is a proof of rare perseverance. Matthiessen bore a high personal character among his contemporaries.

[Besides the sources already quoted, see Times, 8 Oct. 1870; Nature, ii. 475, 517; Pharmaceutical Journal, [3] i. 317; Chemical News, xxii. 189; Journ. Chem. Soc. 1870, p. 615; American Journal of Science, [3] i. 73; Proc. Roy. Soc. xviii. 111.]

P. J. H.