Svante August Arrhenius

Svante August Arrhenius

Swedish physical chemist best known for his theory that electrolytes, certain substances that dissolve in water to yield a solution that conducts electricity, are separated, or dissociated, into electrically charged particles, or ions, even when there is no current flowing through the solution. In 1903 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Early training.
Arrhenius is said to have taught himself to read at the age of three and to have become interested in mathematics from watching his father add columns of figures. He attended the Cathedral School at Uppsala and went on to the university, where he studied physics, mathematics, and chemistry. In pursuit of his doctorate he migrated to Stockholm to work on electrolysis under Erik Edlund. In 1883 he published his first paper and in May 1884, at Uppsala, defended his doctoral thesis containing in embryo the dissociation theory.
The thesis was greeted with incredulity and awarded the fourth class, a bare pass; the university in effect condemned an important and original thesis. The faculty at Uppsala were skeptical of hypotheses and devoted to accurate experimental work, while Arrhenius boasted (not quite truly) that he had never performed an exact experiment in his life; moreover, his subject fell awkwardly between chemistry and physics. Even to the sympathetic English physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, who in 1886 described the theory to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Arrhenius seemed sometimes "to indulge in . . . manipulation of imaginary data," producing "a confusion" from which emerged so-called theoretical deductions. In reality, Arrhenius had a statistical sense and an ability to frame formulas to fit his facts, both of which were rare among chemists of his day. He had prudently sent copies of his thesis to the most prominent physical chemists of the day, who were able to understand it; and in August 1884 the German physical chemist Wilhelm Ostwald went from Riga to Uppsala to offer Arrhenius a post. He was at once given a lectureship in physical chemistry at Uppsala; and in 1886 Edlund got him a traveling fellowship from the Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Acceptance of his theory.
Arrhenius spent the period from 1886 to 1890 working with other eminent scientists--Ostwald at Riga, F.W. Kohlrausch at Wurzburg, Ludwig Boltzmann at Graz, and Jacobus van't Hoff at Amsterdam. During these years he refined his theory, which gradually began to win adherents. In 1891 he was offered a chair at Giessen, Ger., where Justus von Liebig, half a century earlier, had revolutionized the teaching of chemistry; but he wished to remain in Sweden and obtained a post at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. In 1895 he became professor of physics and, in 1896, rector of the school. Abroad, his reputation stood very high; but he was not elected to the Swedish Academy of Sciences until 1901, and even then with strong opposition. In 1902 he received the Davy Medal of the Royal Society of London, which in 1911 elected him a foreign member; and in 1903 his own countrymen made amends when he became the first Swede to be awarded a Nobel Prize.
In 1905 he was offered a chair at the University of Berlin, then the most eminent position open to an academic chemist. On patriotic grounds, he refused; and the directorship of the Nobel Institute for Physical Chemistry at Stockholm was created for him. This gave him ample opportunity for research and writing, and his later years were contented.

In 1911 he visited the United States to receive the first Willard Gibbs Medal and to deliver the Silliman Lectures at Yale University, with the latter published as Theories of Solutions (1912).

Arrhenius was a genial, energetic man who made many friends on his visits abroad. His memory was excellent, he loved nature, but he was indifferent to the fine arts and literature. His range of scientific interests was very wide: over the years, he moved away from the study of solutions into immunology, where he made pioneering studies on toxins, and then into geology and cosmology. In Worlds in the Making (1908), he suggested that cool stars might collide and form nebulae from which new stars and planets would arise; and so the process would go on indefinitely, life being spread about the universe by bacteria propelled by light pressure. These speculations have not found their way into modern cosmology.


Elisabeth Crawford, Arrhenius: From Ionic Theory to the Greenhouse Effect (1996), recounts his life and career and sets both in the context of contemporary Swedish society.


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