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Berzelius, Jöns Jacob, Baron

chemistry elements medicine theory

[ber zay leeus] (1779–1848) Swedish chemist; dominated chemical theory for much of his lifetime.

Orphaned, Berzelius was brought up by relatives. He was interested in natural history and medicine was his chosen career from his schooldays. After studying medicine he graduated at Uppsala in 1802. He had read and experimented in chemistry under J Afzelius and his interest focused upon the subject. The wars against France (1805–9 and 1812–14) gave him financial freedom, because the need for military surgeons led to an increase in pay for the medical faculty in Stockholm where Berzelius held the chair of medicine and pharmacy from 1807 (renamed chemistry and pharmacy in 1810). In 1808 he became a member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences. Berzelius married late in life; he was 56 and his bride 24; as a wedding gift the king of Sweden made him a baron.

Berzelius provided the first major systemization of 19th-c chemistry, including the first accurate table of relative atomic masses (for 28 elements in his list of 1828); the reintroduction and use of modern ‘initial letter’ symbols for elements; concepts including isomerism and catalysis, and the division of the subject into organic and inorganic branches; and, importantly, his theory of dualism, based on his work in electrochemistry. This theory proved first a spur and later an inhibitor to further development but can now be seen as a precursor to the later division of elements into the electropositive and electronegative classes. He was the discoverer of three new elements (selenium, cerium and thorium).

For many years Berzelius was a uniquely dominant figure in chemistry, with great influence through his research, his year-book on advances in chemistry and his many pupils.

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