The Idiots Guide to Everything: Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev

Posted on December 11, 2012


Oh so Slavic.


Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev


The name of Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev might not ring any bells in the minds of my generation, but his impact on the world of chemistry is almost second to none. Born in a village called Verkhie Aremzyani near to Tobolsk in Siberia on February 8th 1834, Mendeleev was the youngest sibling of a huge family, although the size of which is frequently debated. Any number between 11 and 17 has been cited, and whichever side of that it is, it’s a pretty freakin’ large family. I’m 1 of 5, and we consider that large. Phew. His father was a Russian Orthodox Priest, and although he was raised as a Christian, Mendeleev rejected religion later in his life. Indeed, his formative years up until his early adult life got progressively more difficult, with his Dad losing his teaching work due to blindness and his Mum’s efforts to earn for the family thwarted by a fire at the factory she worked, and all of this topped off with Mendeleev contracting tuberculosis. So all of you fools who use the internet acronym ‘fml’, you should be ashamed of yourselves. Mendeleev headed to Crimea to recover, which he did, and continued on his academic path to Saint Petersburg, where he was studying Natural Science, to graduate in Chemistry in 1856. Thus the master found his trade.

Mendeleev’s original work covered a wide range, but began to focus on the most general problems of chemical and physical theory. It was whilst studying this that he began to notice and trace numerical sequences amongst the atomic weights of some elements. He was by no means the first to notice this, but he was the first to give a true full expression to it, to accept and treat it as a law of nature. He began to devise a way of ordering the known elements. His initial table was in many ways like a crossword puzzle, with each new placing giving a clue to a different one. Using a combination of conscious calculation and hunch, or intuition and analysis, Mendeleev was able to put together a table of around 30 elements. This arranged the elements in ascending order of atomic weight, as well as grouping them by similar properties. Mendeleev also had the wherewithal to predict the discovery of further elements, and left gaps in his table for where he believed these elements would be placed. In doing so, he correctly predicted the discovery of Germanium, Gallium and Scandium. Clever girl.

Things would move forward very quickly in a typical 19th century Russian way. Almost as if directly out of a Dostoevsky classic, Mendeleev had a dream on February 16th 1689. In this dream, he visualized a grand table of around 65 elements, as opposed to the 30 or so he currently had. When he awoke the next morning, he began to put it to paper. Less than 3 weeks later, the first version of what we know as the periodic table today was published. Mendeleev published ‘The Principles of Chemistry’ in 1869, and his work almost single handedly transformed St Petersburg into an internationally recognized centre for chemistry research. He was Professor of Chemistry at the Technology Institute of Saint Petersburg at the time, where he worked until his resignation in 1890. He was appointed Director of the Bureau of Weights and Measures in 1893, where he formulated the new national standard for vodka. As a result of his work in this field, all vodka in Russia had to be produced at 40% alcohol by volume. It wasn’t all gold however, as Mendeleev was initially sceptical about the existence of the noble gases. He did eventually accept their existence in 1902, at which point he added them into this periodic table as ‘Group 0’.

Mendeleev’s personal life was as dramatic as any Dostoevsky character as well. He was well known for his large beard and long hair, which he reportedly cut just once a year. He was also technically a bigamist, as there wasn’t a 7 year gap between his first divorce and his second marriage. In fact, the gap between the two was minus 1 month, so I suppose there is no ‘technically’ about it. Mendeleev was a bigamist. His first marriage was over however, just waiting for legal confirmation, and during this time he began to become obsessed with Anna Ivanova Popova, and would go on to court her. I love that term. In 1881, Mendeleev proposed to Popova. Aw, how romantic. However, he also threatened to commit suicide if she refused. Love, my friends, love. Wisely, Popova accepted the proposal, and they married.

Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev died of influenza on February 2nd, 1907, in Saint Petersburg, In his wake, a crater on the moon bears his name and, fittingly, element number 101 was named after him (Mendelevium). As well as creating what we know as the periodic table today, Mendeleev is also credited with bringing the metric system to Russia, and as Russia’s Chief Scientific Advisor was closely involved in pretty much all industry and agriculture during his time, be it coal, oil, cheese, beer, you name it. This is a man who put together something that millions of children worldwide learn of as unshakeable, something he put together after seeing it in a dream. A man who threatened suicide if his lover refused his proposal and no one questioned his word. An intensely intelligent and deliberate man with wild passion and intensity to boot. Oh, and a glorious beard. Dmitri Mendeleev, the Slav’s Slav.