Jacob Berzelius (1779 - 1848)

Jacob BerzeliusJacob Berzelius dominated the development of chemistry in Europe during the first half of the 19th century. Through reliable and accurate measurements he discovered new elements and was able to determine the atomic masses of the then known elements. Berzelius also developed the system of symbols for the elements that is still used today.

Jacob Berzelius began studying medicine in Uppsala in 1796. He was to a large extent self-taught in chemistry since teaching in the subject was extremely limited. He conducted his own experiments in his student room, using a frying pan, among other things. Directly after completing his studies he supported himself by lecturing and as a doctor for paupers.

Precision and rigour in experiments

When Berzelius became professor at the Surgical School in Stockholm in 1806 he established one laboratory for teaching and another in his residenceThis was the beginning of ten years of intensive scientific work.

At the beginning of the 19th century, experimental chemistry was undeveloped. The results were often so poor that it was difficult to draw any conclusions. Jacob Berzelius was able to come up with new methods or improve existing ones. Subsequently, despite limited equipment, he performed experiments with great precision and rigour.

Atomic mass, new elements and the system of symbols

Berzelius determined, through a huge amount of work, the atomic masses of the elements. He also discovered several new elements - cerium, selenium, silicon, zirconium and thorium – and devised the system of symbols, for example O for oxygen and Au for gold, which is still used to represent the elements.

Berzelius reviewed contemporary research

Berzelius was an ardent advocate of scientific publications and early on founded his own. As Professor he also authored a comprehensive chemistry textbook in Swedish. When Berzelius became Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences in 1818 his summaries and reviews of contemporary research in the Academy’s annual reports became very influential.

1796                    student in Uppsala
1802                    defends his dissertation
1807                    Professor of Medicine and Pharmacy at the Surgical School in
                            Stockholm
1819                    Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
1835                    ennobled as Baron