• Jöns Jacob Berzelius


Jons Jacob Berzelius (Väversunda, 20 August 1779-Stockholm, 7 August 1848) was born in a small Swedish town in East Gothland, where his parents were on holiday. His father was principal of the school at Linköping. The family was descended from ancestors in East Gothland. Both his parents died when he was young and he was brought up by his stepfather Anders Ekmarck, later vicar of Ekeby. In 1796 he left school with the usual report of headmasters on pupils of genius that there was ‘little hope for him’. He entered the University of Uppsala on the recommendation of Bishop Lindblom as a medical student, but left from lack of means and became a private tutor. In 1798 he won a small scholarship and re-entered the University. He began to make chemical and electrical experiments privately with his stepbrother Christof er Ekmarck. The professor of chemistry Afzelius, who had succeeded Bergman (see Vol. III, p. 200), still taught the phlogiston theory. Berzelius studied from two inexpensive books, Girtanner’s Anfangsgründe der anti-phlogistischen Chemie (1792) and the Swedish translation (1795) of Fourcroy’s Philosophie Chimique (see Vol. III, pp. 539, 590). He made experiments in his lodging, preparing oxygen which he took to the University laboratory to demonstrate, to the delight of his fellow students, the combustion of iron wire in it. Berzelius was largely self-taught in chemistry, and as a student he suffered considerably from the pettifogging formality of university officials. A paper on nitrous oxide was rejected by the Academy of Sciences, to which it had been presented by Afzelius, because it used the antiphlogistic nomenclature.


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© J. R. Partington 1964

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