Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786)

We will begin our history of organic chemistry with Lavoisier in 1789, a year that was as revolutionary in chemistry as it was in politics. But we must realize that all of chemistry did not spring suddenly from Lavoisier's brow. He and his colleagues built on a long tradition of practical chemistry in such fields as metallurgy, dyeing, preparing alcoholic beverages, and, particularly, medicine and pharmacy.

As an outstanding exemplar of the tradition of empirical chemistry upon which Lavoisier built we can consider the Swede Carl Wilhelm Scheele, who refused numerous offers of university professorships in order to continue his chemical research undisturbed in conjunction with his practical occupation as an apothecary in Stockholm, Uppsala, and Köping. Though he was only a year older than Lavoisier, his scientific style was quite different. Still, his contributions would prove key for the development of organic chemistry in the next century.

Scheele holds a record for discovering seven natural elements (nitrogen, chlorine, manganese, molybdenum, barium, tungsten, and oxygen, the most important element of all for Lavoisier's chemical revolution), but he had to share credit in every case because his results were not published quickly enough to obtain undisputed priority. (click to read about Scheele's disclosing oxygen to Lavoisier)

There is no contemporary likeness of Scheele.
This plaster medallion in the Royal Swedish Academy
of Sciences was created 40 years after his death.
Even more impressive was his ability to purify organic compounds. He was the first to purify such organic acids as benzoic, oxalic, citric, tartaric, lactic, and uric. He typically obtained pure samples by crystallizing their salts with heavy metals (such as lead).

As you can infer from the illustration of his laboratory on the title page of his 1777 book on oxygen, which he called Feuerluft or Fire-Air, his means of analysis were limited. It would be decades after his death until melting points were introduced to measure identity and purity.

He used the means available, including taste, and it is thought that poisoning by heavy metals (he also discovered hydrogen cyanide) may have contributed to his health problems (though his death at the age of 44 probably had to do with heart weakness from rheumatic fever).

Regardless of whether taking unwitting risks constitutes heroism, Scheele is certainly an authentic chemical hero.

One of his creations was the green pigment copper arsenite, which as "Scheele's green" became a popular coloring for confections, until it was discovered half a century later to be poisonous. Presence of this pigment in the bedroom wallpaper of Napoleon in exile on St. Helena may have been a factor in his demise.

Scheele title page

The 1942 Swedish stamp commemorating the bicentennial of Scheele's birth was, appropriatedly enough, green. The sample from the collection of Professor Zvi Rappoport (Hebrew University) was cancelled in Ytterby, Sweden. Because of the richness of the ores from its feldspar mine, and persistent element-hunting by Berzelius and successive Swedish chemists, the village of Ytterby on an island 10 miles northeast of Stockholm has given its name to four "rare-earth" elements: Ytterbium, Yttrium, Terbium, and Erbium.

Professor Rappoport has informed me of several curiosities about this stamp. For one thing, the Ytterby of the cancellation is not the Ytterby of the mine, where the post office was closed long before 1991. It is rather a town near Göteborg in western Sweden that was chosen by someone who wanted his Scheele stamp to bear an Ytterby cancellation. Just as remarkably the individual in the portrait is not Carl Wilhelm Scheele, whom the stamp commemorates, but his nephew wearing a tie that did not become fashionable until long after Scheele's death. The stamp is definitely green, though presumably not from copper arsenite.

Stamp from E. Heilbronner and F.A. Miller, "A Philatelic Ramble through Chemistry", Verlag Helvetica Chimica Acta, Basel (1998);
reproduced by permission of Professor Rappoport.
T.C. Laurent, "What Did Carl Wilhelm Scheele Look Like?", The Chemical Intelligencer, pp. 28-30 (1999)
For a fuller discussion of the importance of "prerevolutionary" chemistry see:
F. L. Holmes, 18th-century chemistry as an investigative enterprise, Berkeley, 1989.

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