Dmitrii Mendeleev

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Mendeleev, Dmitrii Ivanovich


Born Jan. 27 (Feb. 8), 1834, in Tobol’sk; died Jan. 20 (Feb. 2), 1907, in St. Petersburg. Russian chemist who discovered the periodic law of chemical elements; versatile scientist, teacher, and public figure.

Mendeleev was the son of I. P. Mendeleev (1783-1847), director of the Tobol’sk Gymnasium. He received his higher education in the section of natural sciences of the physics and mathematics department of the Chief Pedagogical Institute in St. Petersburg, from which he graduated with a gold medal in 1855. In 1856 he defended his master’s dissertation at the University of St. Petersburg, where as a decent he lectured in organic chemistry beginning in 1857. From 1859 to 1861, Mendeleev was sent to further his studies to Heidelberg, where he became friends with many scientists, including A. P. Borodin and I. M. Sechenov. He worked in his small home laboratory and in R. Bunsen’s laboratory at the University of Heidelberg.

In 1861, Mendeleev published the textbook Organic Chemistry, for which he was awarded the Demidov Prize by the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. From 1864 to 1866 he was a professor at the St. Petersburg Institute of Technology. In 1865 he defended his doctoral dissertation,“On the Combination of Alcohol With Water,”and was appointed a professor at the University of St. Petersburg. He was elected a corresponding member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1876, but his candidacy for academician was rejected in 1880“by the opposition of dark forces that jealously close the doors of the academy to Russian talents” (from a letter by Moscow University professors, quoted from A. M. Butlerov, Soch. , vol. 3, 1958, p. 128). The academy’s rejection of Mendeleev elicited a sharp protest in Russia and abroad.

At the time of student unrest in 1890, Mendeleev delivered to I. D. Delianov, minister of public education, a petition by a students’ meeting asking for autonomy for the university and the abolition of the police functions of the inspection board. Delia-nov returned the petition to Mendeleev, who in reply immediately resigned. From 1890 to 1895, Mendeleev was a consultant to the Scientific and Technical Laboratory of the Naval Ministry. In 1890 he invented a new kind of smokeless powder (cellulose nitrate) and in 1892 organized its production. In 1892 he was appointed scientific custodian of the Depot of Standard Weights and Balances, which in 1893 was reorganized at his initiative into the Central Board of Weights and Measures, now the D. I. Mendeleev All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Metrology. Mendeleev remained the institute’s director until his death.

Mendeleev’s scientific activities were extremely diverse. Among his more than 500 publications were fundamental works on chemistry, chemical technology, physics, metrology, aeronautics, meteorology, agriculture, economics, and public education. “I am myself amazed at what I’ve done in my scientific life. And done, I think, not badly,”he wrote in 1899 (Soch. , vol. 25, 1952, p. 714).

As a student, Mendeleev was trained in chemistry by A. A. Voskresenskii, in higher mathematics by M. V. Ostrogradskii, and in physics by E. Kh. Lents. His complete mastery of the methods of mathematics and physics and the application of these sciences to the solution of chemical problems set Mendeleev apart from most of the leading chemists of his time.

Early in his scientific career Mendeleev was attracted by the relations between the composition, physical properties, and forms of chemical compounds. In his dissertation upon graduation from the Pedagogical Institute,“Isomorphism in Connection With Other Relations of Crystalline Form to Composition” (1856; Soch. , vol. 1, 1937), he attempted to classify the chemical elements according to the crystalline form of their compounds. Similarly, in his master’s dissertation,“Specific Volumes” (1856; Soch. , vol. 1, 1937, and vol. 25, 1952), Mendeleev made use of the concept of specific volume (the quotient resulting from the division of the atomic or molecular weight by the density of a simple or complex substance).

The concept of molecule and change in the system of atomic weights took shape in the 1850’s under the influence of the work of C. Gerhardt. In his “Specific Volumes,”Mendeleev completely supported Gerhardt’s views and used Gerhardt’s system of atomic weights. In the same work, Mendeleev derived the relationship that is expressed in modern symbols by the equation M = 2.Q16d, where M is the molecular weight of a gas or vapor and d is its density with respect to hydrogen. He explained deviations from this relationship (which he called the law of Avogadro-Gerhardt) by thermal dissociation, which was later confirmed experimentally.

In 1860, Mendeleev and six Russian chemists, including N. N. Zinin and A. P. Borodin, attended the International Congress of Chemists in Karlsruhe. Adopting the views expressed in a pamphlet by S. Cannizzaro, the congress made strict distinctions between the concepts of atom, molecule, and equivalent, which up to that time had not been differentiated. The lack of such a distinction often resulted in confusion. Mendeleev successively advanced new views in his lectures and published works (Organic Chemistry, 1861 Principles of Chemistry, parts 1-2, 1869-71).

When he began lecturing in inorganic chemistry at the University of St. Petersburg, Mendeleev was unable to find any textbook that he could recommend to his students, whereupon he began writing his classic work Principles of Chemistry. In his words,“There is much that is independent here . . . but the main thing is the periodicity of the elements that I found when working on the Principles of ’Chemistry” (Soch. , vol. 25, 1952, p. 699). Mendeleev’s discovery of the periodic law is dated to Feb. 17 (Mar. 1), 1869, when he compiled the table entitled “Attempt at a System of Elements Based on Their Atomic Weights and Chemi= cal Similarities.”It was the result of many years’ research. In reply to the question of how he discovered the periodic system, Mendeleev once said,“I thought about it perhaps 20 years, but you think I was sitting and suddenly … there it is” (D. I. Mendeleev po vospominaniiam O. E. Ozarovskoi, Moscow, 1929, p. 110). Mendeleev prepared several versions of the periodic table and corrected the atomic weights of several known elements on the basis of the table; he also predicted the existence and properties of yet unknown elements. At first, the table itself and the corrections and predictions made by Mendeleev aroused little interest. However, after the discovery of the predicted elements—gallium, germanium, scandium—the periodic law began winning recognition. Mendeleev’s system proved to be a unique guide in the study of inorganic chemistry and in research.

The discovery of inert gases and radioactive elements in the late 19th century and early 20th did not undermine the periodic law, as was first thought, but actually strengthened it. The discovery of isotopes eliminated some deviations in the arrangement of elements in order of increasing atomic weights (Ar—K, Co—Ni, Te—I). The theory of the structure of the atom showed that Mendeleev had correctly arranged the elements in order of increasing atomic numbers and resolved all doubts concerning the place of lanthanides in the periodic table. Thus, Mendeleev’s prediction was borne out:“The future does not threaten the periodic law with destruction but merely promises to build the superstructure and provide for further development” (ArkhivD. L Mendeleeva, vol. 1, 1951, p. 34). The periodic law has long since won universal recognition as one of the fundamental laws of chemistry.

The periodic law proved to be the foundation of Mendeleev’s book Principles of Chemistry. According to H. Le Chatelier, all the chemistry textbooks of the second half of the 19th century followed the same model,“but only one unique attempt to really depart from the classical traditions deserves to be mentioned— Mendeleev’s attempt; his chemistry manual was conceived according to a very special plan” (Lemons sur le carbone, la combustion, les his chimiques, Paris, 1926, p. vii). In richness and boldness of scientific thought, originality of exposition, and influence on the development and teaching of chemistry, Mendeleev’s work had no equal in the world’s chemistry literature. The Principles of Chemistry went through eight editions during Mendeleev’s lifetime (8th ed. 1906) and was translated into English (1891, 1897, 1905), German (1891), and French (1895). It was reissued five times in the USSR (1927-28, 1931, 1932, 1934, 1947).

Mendeleev set forth his views on the nature of solutions in his monograph Study of Aqueous Solutions From Their Specific Gravity (1887), which contains a vast quantity of experimental data. According to Mendeleev, solutions are liquid systems in a state of dissociation. These systems consist of molecules of the solvent and solute and of products of their interaction—certain unstable chemical compounds. On diagrams showing the dependence between the composition and the derivative of the density with respect to the composition (that is, the maximum ratio of increase in density to increase in composition), Mendeleev found breaks corresponding to the formation of chemical compounds. Much later (beginning in 1912), N. S. Kurnakov, proceeding from Mendeleev’s ideas, created the theory of singular points of chemical diagrams. In his views on solutions, Mendeleev anticipated the theory of hydration (and, in general, solvation) of ions. Mendeleev’s ideas regarding the chemical interaction among the components of a solution contributed significantly to the development of the modern theory of solutions.

Among Mendeleev’s most important contributions to physics were the statement on the existence of an “absolute boiling point”of liquids (1860-61), later called the critical temperature; the derivation of the equation of state for 1 mole of an ideal gas (1874); and studies on deviations of real gases from the BoyleMariotte law at low pressures, for which he devised special equipment. In 1887 he made a solo balloon ascension to observe a solar eclipse and to study the upper layers of the atmosphere.

Mendeleev also conducted studies in metrology. He developed a precise theory of weights, designed an excellent balance arm and arresting device, and proposed highly exact methods of weighing. With Mendeleev’s participation and under his direction, the Central Board of Weights and Measures restored the prototypes of the pound and arshin and compared Russian standards of measures with the English and metric standards (1893-98). He considered it essential that the metric system be introduced in Russia. At his insistence, the system was made optional in 1899, but it was not until 1918 that it became mandatory.

In his scientific work, Mendeleev was a natural materialist, recognizing the objectivity and knowability of the laws of nature and the possibility of using these laws to benefit man. He wrote,“It is impossible to foresee the boundaries of scientific knowledge and prediction” (Soch. , vol. 24, 1954, p. 458, footnote). He also observed that “without independent movement, even the smallest fraction of matter is inconceivable” (Osnovy khimii, vol. 1, 1947, p. 473).

A major feature of Mendeleev’s career was the close relation-ship between Mendeleev’s scientific research and the requirements of the country’s economic development. Mendeleev was particularly interested in the petroleum, coal, metallurgical, and chemical industries. Beginning in the 1860’s he made frequent trips to Baku to serve as a consultant on petroleum. He advocated the construction of oil pipelines and the varied use of oil as a chemical raw material. He proposed the principle of continuous fractional distillation of petroleum and advanced (1877) the hypothesis that petroleum was formed as a result of the interaction of iron carbides with water deep within the earth at high temperatures. In a report on an official trip to the Donetsk Region (1888), he discussed measures for the most rapid exploitation of the natural resources of the Donbas (coal, iron ore, rock salt), predicted a great industrial future for the region, and ex-pressed for the first time the idea of the underground gasification of coal. Mendeleev linked the expanded working of Russian coal deposits to the development of cast iron, steel, and copper production. He noted the need to extract chromium and manganese ores in the Urals and the Caucasus. He viewed an increase in the production of sodium carbonate, sulfuric acid, and artificial mineral fertilizers from native raw material as a high-priority task. He outlined a long-range program for the exploitation of the country’s vast natural resources.

On agricultural matters, Mendeleev did not subscribe to the then widespread “theory of diminishing soil fertility”and believed that fertility could be renewed again and again with fertilizers. After conducting field experiments (1867-69), he called attention to the need for liming acid soils, and advocated the use of ground rock phosphorite, superphosphate, and nitrogen and of potassium fertilizers and the joint use of mineral and organic fertilizers. He supported V. V. Dokuchaev’s efforts (field surveys, organization of soil science departments in universities).

Mendeleev devoted much attention to such important problems as the irRīgation of land in the Lower Volga Region, the improvement of navigation on Russian rivers, the construction of new railroads, and the development of the Northern sea route. Interested as he was in industrial development and scientific research, he traveled not only throughout Russia but also to Western Europe and the United States, where he familiarized himself with factories and industrial exhibits.

A leading public figure, Mendeleev advocated the industrial development and economic independence of Russia. This was reflected in his work on the Council of Trade and Manufactures, where he devised a new customs tariff (1889-92). Mendeleev linked the country’s prosperity not only to the broad and rational exploitation of its natural resources but also to the development of the people’s creative abilities and to the spread of education and science. Russian public education, according to Mendeleev, should be practical and realistic, not “classical,”and should be available to all strata of the population. He attached particular importance to the training of teachers and professors and himself was a brilliant lecturer and educator of the new scientific generation. Among his students or followers were A. A. Baikov, V. I. Vernadskii, G. G. Gustavson, V. A. Kistiakovskii, V. L. Komarov, D. P. Konovalov, N. S. Kurnakov, A. L. Potylitsyn, K. A. Timiriazev, V. E. Tishchenko, and I. F. Shreder. All the Rus-sian chemists of the late 19th century and early 20th studied from his Principles of Chemistry.

Mendeleev, along with A. A. Voskresenskii, N. N.J. Zinin, and N. A. Menshutkin, helped organize the Russian Chemical Society (1868), which in 1878 merged with the Russian Physics Society into the Russian Physics and Chemical Society, whose chemistry division was made in 1932 the D. I. Mendeleev All-Union Chemical Society.

Mendeleev was well known in many countries during his life-time. He received more than 130 diplomas and honorary titles from Russian and foreign academies, scientific societies, and educational institutions (see Materialy po istorii otechestvennoi khimii, Moscow-Leningrad, 1950, pp. 116-21).

In the USSR, Mendeleev prizes have been instituted for out-standing achievements in physics and chemistry; they are awarded by the Academy of Sciences. In addition to the afore-mentioned All-Union Chemical Society and All-Union Institute of Metrology, the Moscow Institute of Chemical Technology and the Tobol’sk State Pedagogical Institute also bear Mendeleev’s name. Also named in honor of Mendeleev are an under-water ridge in the Arctic Ocean, an active volcano on the island of Kunashir (in the Kuril Islands), a crater on the moon, the mineral mendelyeevite, and a vessel for oceanographic research of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. The tradition of holding Mendeleev congresses on general and applied chemistry has been established (ten congresses between 1907 and 1969). Annual (since 1939) Mendeleev lectures are held in Leningrad. The D. I. Mendeleev Museum and Scientific Archives, founded in 1911, is housed in a building of the Leningrad State University (in the apartment once occupied by Mendeleev).

The American scientists (G. Seaborg and others) who synthesized element 101 in 1955 named it mendelevium (Md)“in recognition of the pioneering role of the great Russian chemist Dmitrii Mendeleev, who was the first to use the periodic system of the elements to predict the chemical properties of undiscovered elements, a principle which has been the key to the discovery of nearly all the transuranium elements” (G. Seaborg, Iskusstvennye transuranovye elementy [The Transuranium Elements], Moscow, 1965 , p. 49). In 1964, Mendeleev’s name was inscribed on the University of Bridgeport’s (Conn.) Honor Roll of Science among the names of the world’s greatest scientists.


Soch. , vols. 1-25. Moscow-Leningrad, 1934-54. (Vols. 2 and 3 entitled Izbr. sock)
Arkhiv D. L Mendeleeva. Avtobiograficheskie materialy: Sb. dokumentov, vol. 1. Leningrad, 1951.
Periodicheskii zakon. (Edited by B. M. Kedrov. Article and comments also by B. M. Kedrov.) Moscow, 1958.
Ibid. DopolniteVnye materialy. Moscow, 1960.
In the series Nauchnyi arkhiv: Rastvory. Leningrad, 1959.
Osvoenie Krainego Severn. Moscow-Leningrad, 1960.
Izbrannye lektsii po khimii. Moscow, 1968.


Trudy Pervogo Mendeleevskogo s “ezda po obshchei iprikladnoi khimii, sostoiavshegosia v Peterburge s 29 po 30 dek. 1907 g. St. Petersburg, 1909. Pages 8-173. (Speeches by V. E. Tishchenko, N. N. Beketov, G. G. Gustavson, P. Walden, N. E. Zhukovskii, et al.)
Mendeleeva, A. I. Mendeleev v zhizni. [Moscow] 1928.
Chugaev, L. A. Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev: Zhizn’i deiatel’nost’ Leningrad, 1924. [Ozarovskaia, O. E.] D. I. Mendeleev po vospominaniiam O. E. Ozarovskoi. Moscow, 1929.
Mladentsev, M. N., and V. E. Tishchenko. Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev, ego zhizn’ i deiaternost’ vol. 1, parts 1-2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1938.
Shost’in, N. A. D. L Mendeleev i problemy izmereniia. Moscow, 1947.
Pisarzhevskii, O. Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev, 1834-1907, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1953.
D. L Mendeleev: Zhizn’ i tmdy. Moscow. 1957. (Contains a list of Mendeleev’s works.)
Parkhomenko, V. E. D. L Mendeleev i russkoe neftianoe delo. Moscow, 1957.
Kedrov, B. M. Denodnogo velikogo otkrytiia. Moscow, 1958.
lonidi, P. P. Mirovozzrenie D. L Mendeleeva. Moscow, 1959.
Figurovskii, N. A. Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev, 1834-1907. Moscow, 1961.
Makarenia, A. A., and I. N. Filimonova. D. I. Mendeleev i Peterburgskii universitet. Leningrad, 1969.
Makarenia, A. A. D. L Mendeleev i fiziko-khimicheskie nauki: Opyt nauchnoi biografii D. I. Mendeleeva. Moscow, 1972.
Makarenia, A. A., I. N. Filimonova, and N. G. Karpilo (compilers). D.L Mendeleev v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1973.
Kozlov, V. V. Vsesoiuznoe khimicheskoe obshchestvo imeni D. L Mendeleeva, 1868-1968. Moscow, 1971.
Walden, P. “Dmitri Iwanowitsch Mendelejeff.” Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft zu Berlin, 1908, vol. 41, pp. 4719-800.
Tilden, W. A. “Mendeleeff Memorial Lecture.”Journal of the Chemical Society, London, 1909, vol. 95, pp. 19-40, 273-85.
Brauner, B. “D. I. Mendeleev.” Collection des travaux chimiques du Tchecoslovaquie (Prague), 1930, vols. 1-2, nos. 5-6, pp. 219-43.
Leicester, H. M. “D. I. Mendeleev.”In Great Chemists. Edited by E. Farber. New York, 1961. Pages 717-32.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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