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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/June 1873/Baron Liebig

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 3‎ | June 1873

PSM V03 D243 Justus von Liebig.jpg
Professor Liebig


JUSTUS VON LIEBIG, the famous German chemist, who died at Munich, April 18th, was born at Darmstadt, May 12, 1803. Having graduated from the gymnasium of his native place at the age of sixteen, his taste for the study of natural science led him first to accept a situation in an apothecary's shop, where he expected to have abundant opportunity for experiment and research.

After six months' service in the apothecary's shop, Liebig set out for the University of Bonn, where he studied for a while, and then went to Erlangen. At the latter university he attracted notice by the zeal with which he devoted himself to the study of chemistry, and he received from the Grand-duke of Hesse a "travelling stipend," which enabled him to spend two years (1822-'24) in Paris. There he had the advantage of association with Alexander von Humboldt, Gay-Lussac, and other eminent scientists. During his stay in Paris he read before the Academy of Sciences a paper on "Fulminic Acid" which at once stamped him as an able chemist. He was then only twenty-one years of age. In 1824 he was, through the influence of Humboldt, appointed Adjunct Professor of Chemistry in the University of Giessen, and two years later he succeeded to the full dignity of professor. The laboratory which he established at Giessen was the best-appointed school of chemistry in Germany, and thither flocked students from all parts of Europe, but especially from England, and also from this country. Leipsic and Gottingen set up chemical laboratories on Liebig's model, and the Giessen school became a kind of scientific focus, a centre of discovery, whose influence was felt everywhere.

Prof. Liebig visited England in 1838, attending a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He there brought forward the discovery made by his associate, Wohler, of a process for obtaining urea artificially. This announcement of the first successful step toward the synthesis of compounds in the laboratory, which had been supposed producible only under the influence of the mysterious forces of life, was received by the Association with profound interest. At the urgent request of the Association he wrote his work on "Organic Chemistry, in its Application to Agriculture" (Brunswick, 1840), which was translated into most European languages, and had an enormous circulation both in Europe and America. In 1845 he received from his sovereign the honor of an hereditary barony. Seven years later, in 1852, he accepted the position of Professor of Chemistry in the University of Munich, and director of the chemical laboratory of that city.

His principal works, besides those already mentioned, are: "Animal Chemistry, or Chemistry in its Applications to Physiology and Pathology" (1842); and "Familiar Letters" (1844), which brought his views on applied chemistry before a very wide public, in a style so simple and popular that practical agriculturists could understand and profit by the instruction there conveyed.

In 1848 he commenced the publication of his "Annalen," or, "Annual Report of the Progress of Chemical Science." He published his "Researches on the Chemistry of Food" in 1849. His "Dictionary of Chemistry," in which he had the assistance of other writers, appeared in parts between 1837 and 1851.

In estimating the relation of Baron Liebig to the thought of his age, we are not to regard him as simply a chemist; he was much more—he was, in its broadest sense, a philosophical chemist, a man of ideas. Since the death of Berzelius, no man has appeared who had the weight of universal authority in chemical science. The subject has developed into such vastness of detail, that men can only become great by limiting themselves to special branches of it. Liebig devoted himself to organic chemistry, and even here there are other men who have probably surpassed him in the number and importance of their immediate contributions to the science. Yet, since Berzelius closed his career, no savant has appeared in the chemical field who has achieved so brilliant and conspicuous a position as Liebig.

He had in an eminent degree the traits of a successful pioneer in the world of thought. He was a man of impulse, sympathy, and enthusiasm, as well as of intellect. He could not give his life to simple, quiet laboratory investigation, content to make a few additions to the stock of scientific truth. Although trained to the strict methods of investigation, and competent to bend his energies to specific research, yet his manly interest in his fellow-beings, and the welfare and progress of society, determined the course of his studies, and led him constantly to the development of large practical results. When he began with organic chemistry, it was in its infancy, and chiefly confined to the production of a few organic compounds by laboratory decomposition. As for the chemical interpretation of the living organism, it was hardly thought of. The mystery of the vital forces reigned supreme, and barred the way to true inductive investigation. So also with agricultural chemistry. Davy had originated the name early in the century, and presented some of its elementary facts; but they did not reach to practical results, and amounted to nothing in their influence upon the public. The work of Licbig was nothing less than to erect both these sciences into recognized branches of study, to direct the scientific thought of his age to these fields of inquiry, and to arouse the interest of the public in their practical applications; and this great work it is his lasting honor to have accomplished. That he should have committed errors, was inevitable. The first bold original speculations upon complex subjects cannot fail to be always imperfect. And, besides, that order of temperament which fitted him to be a reformer and a leader, and to stimulate and urge on other men, was favorable to rashness of generalization and a sanguine anticipation of conclusions. And yet Liebig's leading doctrines, to whatever degree requiring modification, were steps in the right direction of investigation; while their amendment and revision have made the reputations of other men.

Prof. Liebig's name will always be intimately and honorably associated with the rise of biological science in the nineteenth century. He stands at the beginning of one of the great epochs of knowledge, to which his genius has assisted to give development and direction, and he illustrates in an eminent degrree that hio-hest trait of modern character—devotion to scientific truth to the end of a large and noble utility.

It remains to be stated that Prof. Liebig entertained large and liberal political views. Although working under the European system with great success, ennobled by it, and appreciating its advantages, he nevertheless condemned its repressions and interferences, and looked beyond the ocean for the realization of his hopes and ideas. He was an enthusiast in regard to America, where he had many more readers than in any other country, and he expected great things from freedom, intelligence, and active enterprise in the United States. He even entertained serious notions of taking up his residence in our country. Like Agassiz, he saw that there were great possibilities for the future of science on this continent, and he indulged the idea, which was much more than a fancy, of establishing a great agricultural institution in one of the States. He would have been welcome here with a cordiality beyond his anticipation; for he was not only universally known and highly respected, but the most numerous class of the community—the agriculturists—recognized him as benefactor.