Justus von Liebig: An Educational Paradox

From: http://Step.sdsc.edu/projects95/chem.in.history/essays/liebig.html


How is it that one who was labeled "hopelessly useless" by his school master could later become one of the master chemistry teachers of all time? Justus von Liebig, the son of a dealer in painters' supplies and common chemicals, was born in Darmstadt, Germany, on May 12, 1803. He found little satisfaction in the formal education available at the time, preferring to help his father in the family business working with chemicals and conducting experiments on his own. Even as a young man Liebig was clearly focused. When he was fourteen he was asked by his instructor what he was planning to become; he replied, "a chemist." This profession did not yet exist, and his reply was met with convulsive laughter.

A visit to Darmstadt by a travelling peddler was pivotal to Liebig's early career. Among other things, the peddler sold toy torpedoes powered by fulminates. After watching the fulminates being prepared from materials he easily recognized as mercury, nitric acid, and alcohol, Liebig began to experiment on his own, and soon produced such excellent torpedoes that they were sold in his father's store. Legend has it that fulminates also played an active role in terminating portions of Liebig's educational career. An untimely explosion of some fulminate he had carried to school led to his expulsion from the local gymnasium. Later, he blew the glass and cross bars from the window of his room into the street, and his parents apprenticed him to an apothecary at Heppenheim in an effort to channel his experimental activities in a more positive direction. In ten months, he mastered the profession, and he continued studying fulminates in his spare time. Some historical accounts say that Liebig was sent away from Heppenheim after an explosion in his attic room severely rocked the house.

Upon his return from Heppenheim, Liebig divided his time between experimentation and reading the court library of the reigning duke. The size of the Liebig family prevented his parents from continuing his education. Fortunately, a grant from the Hessian government allowed Liebig to enter the University of Bonn in 1820. Here he studied with Karl Wilhelm Kastner, who persuaded Liebig to follow him to Erlangen in 1821 by promising to teach him chemical analysis. However, to his disappointment, Liebig soon found that Kastner did not know how to do a mineral analysis. Indeed the approach to chemical studies in Germany at that time had a philosophical rather than an experimental approach.

Liebig continued to study the fulminates on his own and he also became involved in student activities. He organized a Natural Science Society of which he became president. He also became a member of the Korps Rhenania where he served in the capacity of treasurer. This was an organization similar to modern fraternities, but since these "korps" usually had a political purpose, they were banned. In a confrontation between members of the Korps and the townspeople, Liebig spoke disrespectfully to the intervening police, going so far as to strike the hat from the head of an officer and an attorney. For this action Liebig was sentenced to three days in jail.

After being acquitted of charges of revolutionary involvement, Liebig petitioned the Grand Duke for a grant to study in Paris, and in November of 1822, he began to study with Thénard, Gay-Lussac, Chevreul, and Vauquelin. Through Thénard's recommendation, he gained admittance to a private laboratory and he continued his work on fulminates. He presented the results of this work to the French Academy on March 22, 1824, and on May 24th of that year he was appointed extraordinary, or assistant, professor at the University of Giessen in Germany. Since it was rare for anyone to become a university professor at the age of twenty-one, this was quite an accomplishment.

After a hostile welcome by fellow faculty members and the death of the only other professor of chemistry, Liebig was able to begin his teaching career. Convinced by his own experiences as a student of the importance of a laboratory approach to the study of chemistry, Liebig developed a course of study which in many ways has served as a model for all laboratories of instruction ever since. The only building available was a deserted barracks in relatively poor condition. However spartan the surroundings, students received a very thorough education. Students drilled in qualitative and quantitative analysis, prepared some organic compounds, and carried out investigations suggested by the professor in charge.

Thus, Liebig began his career as one of the premier chemistry teachers of all time. Students came from all over Europe, Great Britain, and the United States to study with the master. Many Nobel Laureates in chemistry and biology can be traced back to Liebig (see chart in Appendix). Indeed, one of Liebig's greatest contributions to pure chemistry is his reformation of the methods for teaching the subject.

Another of Liebig's major accomplishments was in the field of applied chemistry. Two books, Organic Chemistry an its Application to Agriculture and Physiology, and Organic Chemistry in its Application to Physiology and Pathology, published in 1840 and 1842 respectively, revolutionized food production. Even though some of Liebig's ideas were later proved to be incorrect, he set in motion an application of chemical principles that had a profound effect on the future welfare of mankind. For the first time it was possible to produce enough food stuffs to feed the growing population.

On April 18, 1873 Justus von Liebig died leaving an extensive legacy to the chemical world. He was one of the most influential chemists of the nineteenth century, and he laid the groundwork for the extensive research in organic chemistry that was to characterize the later half of the nineteenth century. He was also noted for his original research documented in over two-hundred papers, his teaching ability, the development of a research laboratory approach to teaching, and his efforts to bring the benefits of chemistry to the lay population. Truly Justus von Liebig deserves the praise and remembrance of mankind in general and chemists specificallyÑquite an accolade for one labeled "hopelessly useless" by his school master.

 

Annotated Bibliography

Berl, E., "Justus Liebig, May 14,1803-April 18, 1873", Journal of Chemical Education,1938, 15, 553-562.

An account of Liebig's life giving information on his ancestors. Included are many quotes from Liebig's own writings.

Brand, Charles J., "A Modern Visit to Liebig's Laboratory", Journal of Chemical Education, 1941, 18, 221-223.

An account of a visit to the Liebig Laboratory and Liebig Museum in Giessen made just prior to World War II. Of special interest is a description of Liebig's salaries through his lifetime.

Good,H.G., "On the Early History of Liebig's Laboratory", Journal of Chemical Education, 1936, 13, 557-562.

A thorough description of the work conducted by student's in Liebig's laboratory at Giessen. Of special interest are the personal accounts of Carl Vogt, one of Liebig's students.

Oesper, Ralph E., "Justus von Liebig - Student and Teacher", Journal of Chemical Education, 1927, 4, 1461-1476.

A very entertaining and well written treatment of Liebig's days as a student and teacher of chemistry.

Partington, J.R., A History of Chemistry, Vol.4, Macmillan: London, 1964, pp.294-317.

A very thorough and scholarly account of the life and work of Liebig. This may be a bit esoteric for the casual reader.

Sachtleben, Rudolf, "Nobel Prize Winners Descended from Liebig", Journal of Chemical Education, 1958, 35, 2, pp.73-75.

Diagrams the academic descendents of Liebig to Nobel Prize winners in Science up to 1953.

Scharrer, Karl, "Justus von Liebig and Today's Agricultural Chemistry", Journal of Chemical Education,1949, 26, 515-518.

The official address at the Seven-Hundredth Anniversary Celebration, City of Giessen, Germany, July 19, 1948. This is a discussion of Liebig's revolutionary work in agricultural chemistry.

Schierz, Ernst R., "Liebig's Student Days", Journal of Chemical Education, 1931, 8, 223-231.

A first-hand account of Liebig's student days at Bonn, Erlangen, and Paris based on letters he wrote to his parents and his autograph album.

Stand, "Stammbaum Der Wissenschaftlichen Familie Justus v. Liebig," Nach Einer Aufzeichnung im Deutschen Museum, 1957 (wall chart of the academic family of Liebig in Liebig Museum in Germany). Twigg, C.A. and Twigg, M.V., "Centenary of the Death of Justus von Liebig", Journal of Chemical Education, 1973, 50, 273-274.

A general summary of Liebig's life published on the one-hundredth anniversary of his death.


Kay Reat and Gerry Munley


From: http://Step.sdsc.edu/projects95/chem.in.history/essays/liebig.html