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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/June 1909/The Progress of Science

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 74‎ | June 1909

THE PROGRESS OF SCIENCE

JUSTUS VON LIEBIG AND THE FIRST LABORATORY

It has been necessary to wait a long while for a biography of Justus von Liebig, but it has now appeared from the competent hand of Professor Jakob Volhard, of Halle, a chemist of distinction, known also as the biographer of A. W. Hofmann. Liebig and Volhard's father were school friends; the young Volhard was treated almost as a child in Liebig's family; later he was his assistant at Munich and succeeded him in some of his lectures. The biography appears in two large volumes from the publishing house of Barth and contains, in addition to a full personal narrative, an extended account of Liebig's researches in organic chemistry.

As has often happened in the case of those who have become eminent in science, Liebig's father—a dealer in drugs—was engaged in work which influenced the interests of the son; his mother was a woman of character; he was backward in his school studies, but made rapid advances when permitted to take up his chosen work, so that he received his doctor's degree at the age of nineteen and an assistant professorship at the age of twenty-one; he traveled and studied abroad.

At the beginning of the last century there was in Germany a remarkable renascence in letters, philosophy and philology, to be followed a little later by the revival which gave the universities their leading place in the advancement of the natural and exact sciences. Liebig was born in 1803, and when he studied at the university the sciences were dominated by the philosophy of nature of the post-Kantians. He says that he was robbed of two precious years of his life by the infection. Schelling, whose lectures he heard, was

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Liebig's Laboratory at Giessen.

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Justus von Liebig.

not likely to lead a student to the study of chemistry. He was capable of writing: "The animal is in organic nature the iron; the plant is the water, for nature begins with the relative separation of the sexes, and then ends in this separation. The animal decomposes the iron, the plant decomposes the water. The female and the male sex of the plant is the carbon and nitrogen of the water." Even Kastner, the professor of chemistry whom Liebig went to Bonn to hear and followed to Erlangen, told his students that "the influence of the moon on the weather is obvious, because storms stop as soon as the moon appears."

But fortunately for science Liebig found his way to Paris and came under the influence of Gay-Lussac. In 1824 he was appointed associate professor of chemistry at Giessen and the following year opened the laboratory of chemistry which is generally regarded as the first regular scientific laboratory for research and instruction. The alchemists had their laboratories and the founders of modern chemistry had rooms in which they carried out their experiments. Anatomical laboratories

 
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for dissection trace their history to Vesalius or even to the beginnings of the medieval university at Salernum. But Liebig's laboratory at Giessen stands for a new epoch in scientific investigation and instruction. It had its own development and was the model for chemical laboratories in other German universities and in other countries. It was some twenty-five years before similar laboratories in physics were established, to be followed still later by laboratories of zoology, physiology, botany, geology and psychology.

It is indeed a long way from "Speculative Physics "—the title which Schelling gave to his work—to the science of the modern laboratory. The transformation in the German university was truly marvelous and is due in greater degree to Liebig than to any other. It was of course a necessary evolution, but a reading of the biography of Liebig makes clear what difficulties had to be overcome and how largely this was accomplished by the energy and personality of the great chemist.

For twenty-seven years Liebig worked in the Giessen laboratory attracting students and fellow workers from all parts of Germany and from foreign countries. He there laid the foundations of organic chemistry and its applications to physiology, to agriculture and to the arts. In 1852 Liebig accepted a call to Munich. He died in 1873.

 

SCIENTIFIC AND EDUCATIONAL MEETINGS

The principal scientific congress of the year consists of the scientific societies meeting in affiliation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New Year's week, with an attendance in the neighborhood of 2,000 scientific men. The meeting next in importance should be that of the National Academy of Sciences at Washington in the third week of April. The academy has high functions as the adviser of the government

in scientific matters and high traditions in maintaining the prestige of science. If, however, the academy transacts business of importance behind closed doors this does not appear in the annual reports, and the scientific programs are small and somewhat uneven in character. At the last meeting there were nineteen papers on the program not all of which were presented. Several of these were important and interesting, and several were important but not interesting to others than experts in the special subject. In general the programs are not of sufficient value to attract to Washington men of science other than members of the academy.

The American Philosophical Society, founded in Philadelphia by Franklin on the model of the Royal Society, after becoming local in character has again undertaken to hold general meetings. They follow immediately those of the National Academy and appear to have become of greater general interest. Thus at the recent meeting there were about fifty papers on the program and some of the events, such as the Darwin memorial session addressed by Ambassador Bryce, were of real significance. The society is fortunate in having its historic building on Independence Square and means to provide luncheons, dinners and receptions. It seems probable, however, that academies having a limited membership selected for eminence and programs covering all the sciences belong to the eighteenth rather than to the twentieth century.

The professional societies in the applied sciences and in education always have successful meetings. The American Medical Convention, meeting in Atlantic City early in June, and the National Educational Association, meeting in Denver early in July, are certain j to bring together thousands of members. The National Educational Association not only has programs attractive to teachers, but the excursion elements are emphasized so that the trip itself is of social and educational value. Many teachers will combine attendance on the sessions at Denver with a visit to the Rocky Mountains, several views of which are here reproduced.

 

SCIENTIFIC ITEMS

We record with regret the deaths of Dr. Frank Leo Tufts, A.B., adjunct professor of physics in Columbia University; of Dr. W. H. Edwards, known for his work on the butterflies of North America, and of the Rev. Dr. Sereno E. Bishop, who had made contributions to our knowledge of the Hawaiian volcanoes.

The following new members of the National Academy of Sciences were elected at the meeting on April 22, 1909: Professor Joseph S. Ames, Johns Hopkins University; Professor Maxime Bôcher, Harvard University; Professor Oskar Bolza, University of Chicago; Mr. Frank W. Clarke, U. S. Geological Survey; Dr. John M. Clarke, New York State Museum; Professor John M. Coulter, University of Chicago; Professor Henry Crew, Northwestern University; Professor Thomas Hunt Morgan, Columbia University; Mr. Waldemar Lindgren, U. S. Geological Survey; Professor Henry L. Wheeler, Yale University. The following were elected foreign associates: Professor Albrecht Penck, University of Berlin; Professor Gustaf Retzius, Stockholm; Professor Wilhelm Waldeyer, University of Berlin; Professor Wilhelm Wundt, University of Leipzig.

The following new members have been elected to the American Philosophical Society: Louis A. Bauer, William Howard Taft, Washington, D. C.; Marston Taylor Bogert, Hermon Carey Bumpus, Dr. Alexis Carrel, A. V. Williams Jackson, New York; Edwin Brant Frost, Williams Bay, Wis.; Robert Aimer Harper, Charles Richard Van Hise, Madison, Wis.; William Herbert Hobbs, Victor Clarence Vaughan, Ann Arbor, Mich.; Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Boston; William Romaine Newbold, John Frederick Lewis, Charles Bingham Penrose, Philadelphia; Francis Darwin, Cambridge, England; Hermann Diels, Emil Fischer, Berlin; Friedrich Kohlrausch, Marburg; Wilhelm F. Ph. Pfeffer, Leipzig.