Aleksandr Mikhailovich Butlerov

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Butlerov, Aleksandr Mikhailovich


Born Sept. 3 (15), 1828, in Chistopol’, now Tatar ASSR; died Aug. 5 (17), 1886, in the village of Butlerovka, now in Alekseevskoe Raion, Tatar ASSR. Russian chemist; author of a theory of chemical structure. Head of the major Kazan school of Russian organic chemists. Public figure. Born into the family of a fief holder and retired officer who had participated in the Patriotic War of 1812.

Butlerov received his primary education in a private boarding school and then in a Gymnasium in Kazan. From 1844 to 1849 he was a student at the University of Kazan. In 1849 he became an instructor, in 1854 extraordinary professor, and in 1857 staff professor of chemistry at the University of Kazan. He was rector of the university twice between 1860 and 1863. From 1868 to 1885 he was a staff professor of chemistry at the University of St. Petersburg. He retired in 1885 but continued to give lectures in special courses. In 1870 he was elected adjunct, in 1871 extraordinary academician, and in 1874 staff academician of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. From 1878 to 1882 he succeeded N. N. Zinin as chairman of the chemistry division of the Russian Physicochemical Society. He was an honorary member of many other scientific societies in Russia and abroad.

At the University of Kazan, Butlerov was attracted to the teaching of chemistry, which he studied under K. K. Klaus and N. N. Zinin. From 1852, after Klaus’ transfer to the University of Dorpat (Tartu), Butlerov was in charge of all chemistry instruction at the University of Kazan. In 1851, Butlerov defended his master’s dissertation, On the Oxidation of Organic Compounds, and, in 1854 at Moscow University, his doctoral dissertation, On Volatile Oils. During a trip abroad in 1857-58, he became close friends with many noted chemists, including F. A. Kekulé and E. Erlenmeyer and spent about six months in Paris, actively participating in sessions of the newly organized Paris Chemical Society. In Paris, in the laboratory of C. A. Wurtz, Butlerov began his first series of experimental investigations. Having discovered a new method of obtaining methylene iodide, Butlerov obtained and studied its numerous derivatives. He was first to synthesize hexamethylenetetramine (urotropine) and a polymer of formaldehyde which, when treated with lime water, was converted into a saccharine substance (containing alpha-acrose, as established by E. Fischer). According to Butlerov, this was the first complete synthesis of a saccharine substance.

Butlerov first expressed his principal ideas on the theory of chemical structure in 1861. He set forth the main propositions of his theory in the paper “On the Chemical Structure of Matter,” which he read to the Chemical Section of the Congress of German Naturalists and Physicians in Speyer (September 1871). The fundamentals of this theory were formulated as follows: (1) “Assuming that each chemical atom has only a definite and limited quantity of chemical strength (affinity), with which it participates in the formation of matter, I would call this chemical bonding or means of mutual joining of atoms in a complex substance chemical construction” (Soch., vol. 1, 1953, p. 561); (2) “the chemical nature of a complex particle is determined by the nature, quantity, and chemical structure of the component elementary parts” (ibid., p. 70).

All other assumptions of the classical theory of chemical structure are directly or indirectly associated with this hypothesis. Butlerov indicated the means of determining chemical structure and formulated the rules by which one may be guided in doing this. He gave preference to synthetic reactions conducted under conditions in which the participating radicals retain their chemical structure. However, he also foresaw the possibility of regroupings, assuming that “general laws” would subsequently be evolved for such cases. Leaving open the question of the preferable type of formulas of chemical structure, Butlerov expressed himself about their meaning: “When the general laws of the dependence of chemical properties of matter on their chemical structure are made known, a similar formula will be the expression of all these properties” (ibid., pp. 73-74).

Butlerov was the first to explain the phenomenon of isomerism by the idea that isomers are compounds with the same elementary composition but different chemical structure. In turn, the dependence of the properties of isomers and of organic compounds in general on their chemical structure is explained by the existence in them of “mutual atomic influence” transmitted along their bonds, as a result of which atoms acquire different “chemical significance” depending on their structural environment. This general assumption was concretized in the form of numerous “rules” by Butlerov himself and especially by his pupils V. V. Markov-nikov and A. N. Popov. Only in the 20th century were these rules, as well as the whole concept of mutual atomic influence, interpreted in terms of electrons.

Experimental confirmation of the theory of chemical structure in Butlerov’s own works, as well as in those of his school, were significant in the formation of that theory. Butlerov predicted and then proved the existence of positional and skeletal isomerism. Having obtained tertiary butyl alcohol, he was able to determine its structure, and he proved (in collaboration with his pupils) the existence of its isomers. In 1864, Butlerov predicted the existence of two butanes and three pentanes, and later even of isobutylene. In order to apply the ideas of the theory of chemical structure to all of organic chemistry, Butlerov published Introduction to the Complete Study of Organic Chemistry in three printings at Kazan in 1864-66; the second edition appeared in German in 1867-68.

Butlerov was the first to initiate the systematic study of polymerization on the basis of the theory of chemical structure; this study was continued in Russia by his successors and was crowned by S. V. Lebedev’s discovery of a commercial method of obtaining synthetic rubber.

A tremendous accomplishment by Butlerov was the creation of a Russian school of chemists. Even during Butlerov’s lifetime, his pupils V. V. Markovnikov, A. N. Popov, and A. M. Zaitsev from the University of Kazan held professorial positions in university subdepartments. The best known of Butlerov’s pupils at the University of St. Petersburg were A. E. Favorskii, M. D. L’vov, and I. L. Kon-dakov. At various times, E. E. Vagner, D. P. Konovalov, F. M. Flavitskii, and other noted Russian chemists worked as trainees in Butlerov’s laboratory. Butlerov’s distinguishing characteristic as an instructor was the fact that he taught by example—students themselves could always observe what the professor was doing and how he was doing it.

Butlerov expended much effort on the struggle for recognition by the Academy of Sciences of the contributions of Russian scientists. In connection with the academy elections in 1882, he addressed himself directly to public opinion, publishing in the Moscow newspaper Rus’ an accusatory article entitled “Is the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg Russian or Only Imperial?”

Butlerov was an advocate of higher education for women; he participated in the organization of advanced courses for women in 1878 and created a chemical laboratory for these courses. Butlerov gave many popular lectures in Kazan and St. Petersburg, mainly on chemical-engineering topics.

In addition to chemistry, Butlerov gave much attention to practical problems of agriculture, horticulture, apiculture, and later, the cultivation of tea in the Caucasus. In the end of the 1860’s he began to manifest an interest in mediumistic spiritualism.

Only under Soviet power has Butlerov’s memory been immortalized (by a monument unveiled in 1953 in front of the building of the department of chemistry of Moscow State University). There has been an Academy edition of his works.


Vvedenie k polnomu izucheniiu organicheskoi khimii, issues 1-3. Kazan, 1864-66.
Stat’i po pchelovodstvu. St. Petersburg, 1891.
Izbrannye raboty po organicheskoi khimii. Moscow, 1951. (Bibliography of works on chemistry.)
Sochineniia, vols. 1-3. Moscow, 1953-58. (Bibliography of works.)
Nauchnaia i pedagogicheskaia deiatel’nost’: Sb. dokumentov. Moscow, 1961.


A. M. Butlerov. 1828-1928: Sb. statei. Leningrad, 1929.
Markovnikov, V. V. “Moskovskaia rech’ o Butlerove.” Tr. In-ta istorii estestvoznaniia i tekhniki, 1956, vol. 12, pp. 135-81.
Bykov, G. V. Istoriia klassicheskoi teorii khimicheskogo stroeniia. >Moscow, 1960.
Bykov, G. V. Aleksandr Mikhailovich Butlerov. Moscow, 1961.
“Pis’ma russkikh khimikov k A. M. Butlerovu.” In Nauchnoe na-sledstvo, vol. 4. Moscow, 1961.


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